Last January, I spent 24 hours in Baghdad with Lieutenant Colonel Steven Miska, an extremely capable deputy brigade commander, who introduced me to some of the Iraqi interpreters on his base. In March, when my article, "Betrayed," appeared, Miska wrote me to say that he was going to commit himself to getting his unit's local staff who were under threat out of Iraq and into the U.S. Now Miska is at the end of his 15-month tour and about to leave Iraq. Last night, he wrote in an e-mail:
We have five Iraqis in the U.S., all interpreters. We have more than two dozen more with packets in various stages of completion. Even though this is the special [immigrant] visa streamlined process, I don't think the Iraqis could have figured it out without my staff. It took a concerted effort to decipher the system and develop the points of contact at each echelon to work through the red tape. We have had more success than most. Still, the policy calls for the final visa approval to take place in Amman. Iraqis must come up with an alibi to get to Amman, as "I'm going to the U.S. Embassy" will get you quickly turned around at the Jordanian border.We set up a bit of an underground railroad from our location and it has worked.
So here is one soldier who has made it his last mission not to leave his Iraqi friends behind. Many other soldiers are doing the same thing, as individuals and through organizations like the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. In the case of the military, the reason is clear: an institutional ethos and shared dangers create a debt of gratitude and a strong bond. A handful of civilian officials from various departments are also pushing on behalf of their Iraqi friends. But the State Department, as an organization, has disgraced itself.
It lobbied against a Senate resolution that would increase the number of special immigrant visas for Iraqis by tenfold and allow applications to be reviewed inside Iraq. After promising to resettle seven thousand Iraqis here this fiscal year, it managed only sixteen hundred and eight. After promising to resettle twelve thousand in fiscal year 2008, it started off with just four hundred and fifty in October. The projected numbers are meaningless P.R., which is how the department treats the issue. Watch this State Department podcast of an interview between the department's spokesman, Sean McCormack, and Ellen Sauerbrey, the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration. Sauerbrey, a political appointee, comes off as a nice person who's completely out of her depth. Look at her expression, listen to her voice, and tell me that you think Iraqi refugees are in good hands. At one point, McCormack mentions the twelve-thousand figure, asking, "This calendar year?" Sauerbrey doesn't correct him. Is she ignorant? Deceptive? It doesn't really matter. Somehow, this twice-defeated candidate for governor of Maryland is serenely certain that "we will easily reach twelve thousand." She also explains that Iraqis can't have their applications processed in Baghdad partly because of concern for their safety during the "three to four months of waiting." And yet, a moment later, she admits that, with all of Iraq's neighbors shutting their borders to refugees, "there really is no place that Iraqis can go if they are fearful, except to find shelter in another part of Iraq." In other words: we know that you can't flee, but we're too worried about your well-being to help you where you are. Sauerbrey ends this ten-minute propaganda film with a complacent lie: "We feel such a strong moral obligation and commitment to help these Iraqis that did help us."
There are various official explanations for the delay, and they all have the smell of indifference. Bush has steadily refused to say one word about the issue. The reason isn't hard to find. "It would be as if the helicopters were flying off the embassy, except in real time, while we're claiming to be victorious," Joel Charny, of Refugees International, one of the most vocal advocates of the cause, told me. When I mentioned Steve Miska's effort on behalf of his interpreters, Charny said, "There's none of that emotion coming from our State Department interlocutors, who are mainly Ellen. The performance has been shameful. Nothing will happen until the President owns the problem. Until President Bush stands up in the Rose Garden or before an Iraq veterans' group and says, 'We have a responsibility and solidarity with people who helped us on this project, and I will make sure my Administration moves heaven and earth to help these people'--until then, nothing significant will happen."
In the early years of the war, State was the agency where you found level-headed professionals who knew what a mess the ideologues at the Pentagon and the White House were making in Iraq. But now the same institution is defacing itself with a moral black mark that history will record next to the department's refusal to admit more than a small number of Jewish refugees during the Second World War. Yesterday, a group of department officials complained about mandatory assignments to Iraq. If I were a foreign-service officer, I'd wonder instead how I could continue to work for an organization that is obstructing the effort to save our Iraqi allies from death. A few of those officers who served in Iraq and left behind friends might be asking themselves the same question.
I'm tired of writing about this. I'm sure you're tired of reading about it. I wish the Administration would do the right thing so I could stop sounding like a self-righteous scold. But the Administration is counting on the soldiers and the journalists and the advocates who have made this their cause to lose interest and move on. So we can't.
Read more posts from George Packer on his New Yorker blog.