Frank Rich Examines the Most Overlooked War Disaster: The Fleeing Iraqis

By: E&P Staff In his Sunday column for The New York Times, Frank Rich explores the oft-neglected aspect of the conflict in Iraqi that actually represents one of its greatest tragedies: the flight of Iraqis from that country and the humanitarian crisis that remains.

Here is an excerpt. The full column can be found behind the pay wall at

Iraqis are clamoring to get out of Iraq. Two million have fled so far and nearly two million more have been displaced within the country. (That?s a total of some 15 percent of the population.) Save the Children reported this month that Iraq?s child-survival rate is falling faster than any other nation?s. One Iraqi in eight is killed by illness or violence by the age of 5. Yet for all the words President Bush has lavished on Darfur and AIDS in Africa, there has been a deadly silence from him about what?s happening in the country he gave ?God?s gift of freedom.?

It?s easy to see why. To admit that Iraqis are voting with their feet is to concede that American policy is in ruins. A ?secure? Iraq is a mirage, and, worse, those who can afford to leave are the very professionals who might have helped build one. Thus the president says nothing about Iraq?s humanitarian crisis, the worst in the Middle East since 1948, much as he tried to hide the American death toll in Iraq by keeping the troops? coffins off-camera and staying away from military funerals.

But his silence about Iraq?s mass exodus is not merely another instance of deceptive White House P.R.; it?s part of a policy with a huge human cost. The easiest way to keep the Iraqi plight out of sight, after all, is to prevent Iraqis from coming to America. And so we do, except for stray Shiites needed to remind us of purple fingers at State of the Union time or to frame the president in Rose Garden photo ops.

Since the 2003 invasion, America has given only 466 Iraqis asylum. Sweden, which was not in the coalition of the willing, plans to admit 25,000 Iraqis this year alone. Our State Department, goaded by January hearings conducted by Ted Kennedy, says it will raise the number for this year to 7,000 (a figure that, small as it is, may be more administration propaganda). A bill passed by Congress this month will add another piddling 500, all interpreters.

In reality, more than 5,000 interpreters worked for the Americans. So did tens of thousands of drivers and security guards who also, in Senator Kennedy?s phrase, have ?an assassin?s bull?s-eye on their backs? because they served the occupying government and its contractors over the past four-plus years. How we feel about these Iraqis was made naked by one of the administration?s most fervent hawks, the former United Nations ambassador John Bolton, speaking to The Times Magazine this month. He claimed that the Iraqi refugee problem had ?absolutely nothing to do? with Saddam?s overthrow: ?Our obligation was to give them new institutions and provide security. We have fulfilled that obligation. I don?t think we have an obligation to compensate for the hardships of war.?

The assistant secretary in charge of refugees at the State Department now, Ellen Sauerbrey, is a twice-defeated Republican candidate for governor of Maryland with no experience in humanitarian crises but a hefty r?sum? in anti-abortion politics. She is to Iraqis seeking rescue what Brownie was to Katrina victims stranded in the Superdome....

While it seems but a dim memory now, once upon a time some Iraqis did greet the Americans as liberators. Today, in fact, it is just such Iraqis ? not the local Iraqi insurgents the president conflates with Osama bin Laden?s Qaeda in Pakistan ? who do want to follow us home. That we are slamming the door in their faces tells you all you need to know about the real morality beneath all the professed good intentions of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Though the war?s godfathers saw themselves as ridding the world of another Hitler, their legacy includes a humanitarian catastrophe that will need its own Raoul Wallenbergs and Oskar Schindlers if lives are to be saved.


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