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Seeing Iraq for what it is

It's not a botched war but, like Darfur, a humanitarian crisis that demands action.

January 18, 2007|David Bosco | DAVID BOSCO is a contributing writer at Foreign Policy magazine.

POLLS TELL US that Americans want to be less involved in Iraq and more involved in Darfur. It's not hard to understand why. For the American public, and many of its leaders, Iraq is a tainted war without good guys. Darfur, by contrast, is a chance to save the helpless. In our minds, Iraq and Darfur seem to fit into neat categories: One is a botched war, the other is a humanitarian crisis.

But the ghastly facts on the ground support no such clear distinction. The United Nations reported Tuesday that more than 34,000 Iraqis died violent deaths in 2006 alone. The day the report came out, a bomb attack at a Baghdad university killed at least 70 people, many of them students. Tens of thousands more Iraqis are displaced. Bodies bearing marks of torture are found nearly daily. All told, the civilian toll in Iraq may have already surpassed that of the Bosnian war, and sectarian violence might soon place it in the awful category of Darfur, where 200,000 to 400,000 civilians are thought to have died.

Still, persuading Americans to see Iraq as a humanitarian crisis in which we still have a moral obligation is a struggle. We now know the Iraqis almost too well. It was easy to see the Kurds and the Shiites as the brave opponents of a brutal dictator when our warplanes were protecting them from 30,000 feet. It's much harder when U.S. troops have to grapple with their unsavory leaders and their thirst for revenge. Remember the solidarity we felt when Iraqis voted? Those feelings of kinship have given way to a sense of betrayal.

The victims in Darfur, by contrast, remain comfortable abstractions.

The advocacy campaign to "Save Darfur" tells us of a ceaseless campaign of ethnic cleansing by armed marauders -- the notorious janjaweed -- against peaceful and defenseless villagers. As it must, this narrative glosses over a few details. The region's rebels, who have committed some abuses of their own, rarely get a mention.

It's no wonder that Darfur's advocates have chosen to present that conflict as starkly as possible. Recent humanitarian interventions have had identifiable and sympathetic victim groups (think of the besieged Bosnian Muslims and the oppressed Kosovars). For all its suffering, Iraq lacks an identifiable victim group. Neither the Sunnis nor the Shiites have much claim on the American conscience at this point. The Sunnis are erstwhile oppressors, while the Shiites appear to be extremist fellow travelers with Iran. The Kurds have been victimized many times before but, mercifully, they have largely skirted the current bloodshed.

Distaste for the major Iraqi factions is only one reason we don't often think of that conflict in humanitarian terms. Another is the more than 3,000 U.S. troops killed in Iraq and the tens of thousands wounded, many grievously. In the context of that loss, we have little compassion left for the Iraqis. It's a phenomenon we've seen before.

Americans who supported saving Somalis from famine in the early 1990s recoiled when it became clear that there was no escaping that country's confused factional battles. The deaths of 18 American soldiers in Mogadishu in 1993 wiped out our commitment to the people we so boldly went to save.

The national exhaustion with Iraq is evident in today's Los Angeles Times poll. Although 30% of those surveyed wanted to keep U.S. troops in Iraq for as long as it takes to win the war, 19% want troops out right now, and 46% want to begin bringing them home within the next year. There are plenty of reasons why Americans are throwing up their hands. The war will forever be tainted by the faulty intelligence that launched it. The Bush administration botched the initial occupation badly. And some sensible people argue that by acting as a magnet for jihadists, American forces are actually perpetuating rather than staving off ethnic conflict.

But if there is a decent prospect that U.S. forces are restraining the violence -- however imperfectly -- the moral case for staying is compelling. We set in motion the chain of events Iraqis are now living, and we have encouraged thousands of Iraqis to bet their lives on a fragile new government. And the United States offers the only force that can help stop the country's descent into all-out warfare.

It's natural that Americans would yearn for a simpler and clearer conflict than Iraq to showcase their humanitarian impulses. But our concern for Darfur must not become a moral salve that allows us to abandon Iraq to its spasm of violence. There may be no blameless factions in Iraq, but there are thousands of ordinary victims. Unless it is clear that we are doing no good, we owe them more.

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