I know Iraqi refugees are somewhere around 87th on anyone’s agenda. I know I should be writing about Gaza or economic stimulus—another day. But today, let me call your attention away from those pressing matters to a new report, scheduled for release on Monday, by Natalie Ondiak and Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress (soon to be the Obama Administration’s Heritage or A.E.I.). It’s called “Operation Safe Haven Iraq 2009,” and it’s a detailed proposal for an airlift of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who have worked with Americans there and whose lives are in danger, in perpetuum, as a result.
The report establishes the rationale for such an operation, familiar to readers of this blog (where the “Guam option” was first proposed over a year ago). It also lays out, in the careful manner of Washington think-tank papers, the steps that the new President would need to take, to wit:
1. Appoint a White House coordinator
2. Review current efforts
3. Finish background checks of qualified Iraqis
4. Begin a four-to-eight-week airlift, probably to Guam
5. Make sure all government agencies—State, Homeland Security, the military—work together
6. Resettle eligible Iraqis here after they’ve been “processed” outside the country
This idea might not hold much appeal for President Obama, for obvious reasons: security risks, cost (CAP roughly estimates a hundred million dollars to resettle forty thousand Iraqis), bad publicity. Iraq wasn’t Obama’s war; he’ll be sorely tempted to want to put it behind him. He could easily point to the current half-measures, such as the Special Immigrant Visa program set up by Congress, and say that, with recent security improvements in Iraq, there’s no pressing need for anything more drastic.
The truth, though, is that present efforts remain sluggish and inadequate. According to CAP, only six hundred Iraqis made it here in 2008, under the Special Immigrant Visa program, which permits five thousand a year. And even a political-military miracle in Iraq won’t protect those Iraqis who identified themselves with the American project and in doing so marked themselves as traitors in the eyes of extremists. Their emergency continues. An airlift would cut through all the obstacles to ending it, all at once.
There are, as the report points out, strategic benefits to protecting our Iraqi allies. It would raise our standing in the region; it would save a remnant of liberal-minded Iraqis who might one day return to rebuild their country. But mainly, it’s the right thing to do. For that reason, the CAP proposal will be an early test of Obama’s willingness to take political risks on behalf of important principles without powerful constituencies behind them.
A footnote: Betrayed, the play that grew out of my New Yorker article on this theme, will be performed next Monday night, at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, as a fund-raiser for the very worthy organization Refugees International. And two of the Iraqis who inspired the play’s lead roles, and who appear in the article as Firas and Laith, will be arriving, after years of effort, on these shores any day now. Al-hamdulillah.