For Americans over, say, fifty, the image of desperate Vietnamese surrounding the American embassy during the fall of Saigon is one we will not soon forget. Watching American helicopters fly away leaving people, many of whom had helped us, to their fates in Vietnam made me feel ashamed—a sense of shame that only grew when we learned what happened to many of those people. These memories are why I find some recent stories coming out of Iraq troubling. As I have told "BreakPoint" listeners and readers, I believe that we should not leave Iraq until we have first established a measure of stability and restored order. To do otherwise would be bad for American security and even worse, of course, for the Iraqi people.
But keeping faith with the Iraqi people means that we have to keep faith today with those brave Iraqis who are cooperating with our attempts to rebuild their country—nearly always at great personal risk.
And to our shame, that's not happening. In a recent edition of the Chicago Sun-Times, Lisa Barron, a CBS reporter who spent fourteen months in Iraq, told readers the story of an Iraqi woman "Jina Russell."
"Jina," of course, is not her real name. She is a translator working with the U.S. Army. Because of her work with the Army, both Shiites and Sunnis consider her to be an "aameel," a collaborator, and she lives under constant threat of kidnapping and assassination. She has lost her daughter, her husband, and her family. She literally has no future in post-war Iraq.
Understandably, Jina "is desperate to come to the United States . . ."
Unfortunately, she cannot get a visa. And her story, unfortunately, is hardly unique. As Barron put it, "the only special visa program to resettle Iraqi military interpreters is grossly inadequate." The waiting list is already years long.
Nor is she likely to enter the country as a refugee despite her obviously well-founded fear of persecution. In a perverse twist worthy of Franz Kafka, people like Jina are "at the bottom of the list of Iraqis who can hope to set foot on American soil any time soon." By the time her named is called, she will likely be dead.
Journalist George Packer, who has supported the war, tells a very similar story in the March 26 issue of the New Yorker. He calls "America's failure to understand, trust, and protect its closest friends in Iraq," those who "embraced America’s project so enthusiastically," a "betrayal."
Why are we failing at this basic task? Part of it, I suppose, is concern over allowing Middle Easterners into the country after September 11. Another concern is that making these kinds of provisions would look like we are getting ready to leave.
But as Packer puts its, we are talking about "Iraq's smallest minority," a relative handful of people. Taking care of them threatens neither national security nor the mission in Iraq.
Our unwillingness to take care of them, on the other hand, undercuts one of the primary reasons we give for staying in Iraq. And if we will not help those who are helping us today, who can believe us for the long haul—either in Iraq or in the rest of the world?
I have, as I said, vivid memories of a time when our national honor was stained. We do not need any more.
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For further reading and information:
Lisa Barron, "America Is Turning Its Back on Iraqis Who Helped Us in War," Chicago Sun-Times, 13 March 2007.
George Packer, “Betrayed: The Iraqis Who Trusted America the Most
BreakPoint Commentary No. 061204, “Later Rather than Sooner: Withdrawing from Iraq.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 061221, “Avoiding the Final Betrayal: Protecting Iraqi Christians.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 061107, “Silencing Ancient Echoes: Iraq’s Christians.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 060329, “One Down, Millions to Go: Abdul Rahman and Religious Freedom.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 050819, “Shafting Nineveh: The Fate of Iraqi Christians.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 050519, “Letting Our Friends Down: The Hmong Christians.”