With so much attention focused on the violence in Iraq, not nearly enough is focused on Iraqi refugees — based on the graphic accounts of their plight during a day-long "Iraq Action Days" conference last Monday at George Washington University. People representing nearly two dozen non-governmental-organizations detailed what is happening to 2.2 million refugees outside Iraq and 2.77 million displaced persons inside the country. These people are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, and Congress must approve funding for key humanitarian assistance programs in the fiscal year 2008 supplemental budget.
It is, indeed, a critical call for the United States national security interests. "[The] State Department's own advisory group on public diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim world has found [that] hostility toward the U.S. makes achieving our policy goals far more difficult," said Rep. Bill Delahunt, Massachusetts Democrat, chairman of the House Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight, at a March 11 hearing on the U.S. response to the Iraqi refugee crisis. "So if you are really concerned about terrorism...it's in our national interest to step up. ... These vast numbers of refugees will produce the terrorist of the future unless they're treated in a way that's respectful and dignified and humanitarian," he said.
The good news is that Erik K. Gustafson, executive director of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC), says that both the Democrats and the Republicans support the efforts of NGOs working for and in Iraq. The trouble from their point of view, as he explained it to me, is that humanitarian aid funding is tied up in the war bill. "We don't really want humanitarian accounts to be tied to war," Mr. Gustafson said.
Yet the war drums — this time in Congress — against the president's new spending bill are loud. In the face of record-high oil prices, members of Congress are asking Iraq to share the cost of war that is "$5,000 a second, $434 million every day; Seven days a week, no weekends off, no vacations; $12 billion every month," according to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Ken Bacon, the president of Refugees International, simply compares the amount to what has been spent militarily and says the United States has spent $500 million for humanitarian aid since 2003 — and it could do better.
It should be no surprise, however, that the Iraqi government has failed to take care of its citizens. "•iplomatic pressure had to be brought ...to get the Iraqi government to [devote] $25 million to their own citizens — and we're talking about reconciliation and movement and a nation," said Mr. Delahunt. His embarrassment on behalf of the Iraqi government brings us back to the plight of Iraq.
Standing next to visiting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the Rose Garden last week, President Bush reiterated that he is only "interested in succeeding in Iraq," reasoning that "[f]ailure in Iraq would send a message to our friends: you can't count on America." On Thursday, though, the National Defense University released a pragmatic account of the situation. "Measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle," reads the report's opening line. "•espite impressive progress in security during the surge, the outcome of the war is in doubt."
What's not in doubt is that the lack of moral clarity has become a major issue threatening American national security interests. Let's make no mistake — the refugees and their suffering will be used by both their government and regional powers to stoke anti-Americanism. That's why the United States — if determined to succeed in the region — needs to be far more aggressive on how it uses its soft power. "Whatever help there is comes from the same militias that the U.S. wants to shut down," according to a report by Refugees International. "They're meeting all the needs the government doesn't meet," and the government has lost credibility with Iraqis, the report concludes. It's the same method used by Hezbollah and Hamas to build public support in the region. The vacuum, therefore, promises nothing less. Many, if not all, in the region are convinced that Americans only care about their losses in blood and treasure, and not a bit about Iraqis. Until that perception changes on the ground, it won't matter whether a Democrat or a Republican occupies the White House in January 2009.
Finally, as it often does, some historical perspective sheds a little light on the situation. "As of March 31, 2008, 2,627 Iraqis have arrived in FY 2008," the State Department reported last week. Since 2003, the United States has taken in roughly 6,000 Iraqis. In contrast, more than 131,000 Vietnamese had settled in the United States from May to December 1975, according to International Rescue Committee reports. We may not yet be at that threshold but the next president should get ready for accepting larger amounts of Iraqis for permanent settlement in the United States.
Tulin Daloglu is a freelance writer.