Adding shame to humiliation

Since the war in Iraq turned into a disaster, one common argument has been that President Bush’s misadventure bears many similarities with US imperialism in South Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.

This argument is historically vapid, as Christopher Hitchens has shown time and again – except in one element. And it’s an element that liberals, anti-war advocates and humanitarians should champion, not only because it’s historically accurate but because it’s morally imperative.

In 1975, when President Gerald Ford conceded that Vietnam was indeed a lost war he marshalled his slim political capital to achieve a genuine humanitarian good out of the horrific war. As the North Vietnamese army closed in on Saigon, Ford arranged for 130,000 South Vietnamese, afraid of Communist retribution and retaliation, to be resettled in the United States.

What Ford showed with his resettlement policy was that even a nation mired in official immorality can help redeem itself with one supremely ethical act.

The current president, unfortunately, has shown no such character in the United States’ latest failed war.

Of all the depravity associated with the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, nothing has shown this administration’s moral bankruptcy and callousness more than its treatment of those ordinary Iraqis fleeing anarchy for any pocket of civility they can find. Almost three million Iraqis find themselves internally displaced, many of them women and children. The UN estimates that another 500,000 Iraqis have fled to Jordan, while 1.2 million Iraqis have crossed over Syria’s border for protection.

In March 2007, Bush did acknowledge this crisis indirectly by promising to resettle 12,000 Iraqi refugees inside the United States in fiscal year 2008. The result: only 2,627 Iraqis have found new homes in the US since the end of March. This leaves five months in the fiscal year for the administration to admit 9,373 more Iraqis to achieve its already stingy goal. At the present rate, the administration won’t even reach half its target by the end of the year.

“That’s pathetic in terms of performance and embarrassing to us as a nation,” railed Gary Ackerman, chairman of the House subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, at a hearing on Iraqi refugees last week.

And if Ford’s example isn’t illustrative enough, another example shows how unconscionable Bush’s efforts have been. At the end of the Clinton era, the United States processed and admitted more than 14,000 refugees from Kosovo over a six-month period in 1999 when refugee camps in Macedonia overflowed.

Surprisingly not even the Bush administration’s Christian chauvinism has moved it to help its co-religionists who have come under vicious attack since the fall of Baghdad. In January, a new law gave religious minorities in Iraq, of which there is a heavy Christian portion, preferential treatment for resettlement in the United States, according to Anastasia Brown, director of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Refugee Programme. Iraqi Christians face a ghoulish proposition from insurgents: convert to Islam or face execution. One Christian convert, she testified last week, was even crucified by insurgents. Nevertheless, despite reports of persecution, the Bush administration has failed to implement special processing to expedite the resettlement of Iraqi Christians.

But this shouldn’t be shocking. Other Iraqis ostensibly closer to the administration’s political goals have fared worse. In a devastating article published in the New Yorker last spring, George Packer reported how even those Iraqis that bought the Bush administration’s narrative of freedom and democracy and offered their services to the US military have been left to fend for themselves against the insurgents and jihadist monsters that consider them traitors. In response, America’s Iraqi friends have been forced to flee Iraq or face certain death as the hope of resettlement in the US has moved glacially.

And just like that, Bush has shown that Iraq’s St Pauls are just as expendable as its Thomas Jeffersons – a rare ecumenical feat for this administration.

What could be the reason for the Bush administration’s less than compassionate efforts on behalf of the Iraqi lives his decisions directly ruined? Gary Ackerman has a theory: “The only answer I can come up with is that President Bush simply doesn’t care about the refugees.”

US expenditures on humanitarian aid support such an accusation. Since 2003, according to the US state department, the US has given $500m in humanitarian aid to Iraq – a pittance compared to the more than $500bn spent overall on the Iraq war since 2003. As Human Rights First notes: “That means that the US spends more on the war in two days than we’ve contributed to humanitarian assistance for refugees and [internally displaced persons] in five years.”

In his treatment of Iraqi refugees, Bush has undermined one of the more easily grasped moral truisms: you are responsible for the unintended consequences of your decisions, no matter how laudable you’ve convinced yourself they were.

When questioned about his Vietnamese resettlement policy, President Ford uttered a pristine statement of moral clarity: “To do less would have added moral shame to humiliation.”

Which in turn presents one more question: do any of the US presidential candidates have the courage to do what’s right in regards to Iraq’s refugees and play President Ford to Bush’s Nixonian heartlessness?

Anything less would indeed be a shame on top of a humiliation.