Representing Iraqis helps dispel common myths.

Monday, May 25th, 2015
By: Jonathan MontagJ.D.

The questions in the current discourse about foreign affairs and Iraq are whether it was a mistake to go in in 2003 and whether it was a mistake to get out in 2010. Conservatives have gone from No and Yes to Yes and Yes quicker than society has come to accept gay marriage and marijuana. Liberals have stayed relatively consistent, except for exceptions, Hillary, answering Yes and No. Whatever Conservatives true analyses are, it is hard not to see some of the typical President Obama bashing in the latter latter No —  it was a mistake to get out in 2011 because President Obama was in charge when the U.S. finished pulling out in 2011 (but not when the pullout began in 2007).

The criticism seems based on the observation that we, the United States, won  the Iraq War by 2011 and then President Obama squandered the victory by handing the place over to, of all people, the Iraqis, who then snatched defeat from our victory. The theory is, I suppose, that the happily unified Iraq of 2011 would have remained happily unified if the United States had only left behind a few tens of thousands of troops to make sure things stayed peaceful. After all, Americans left troops behind in Germany, Japan, and South  Korea to prevent backsliding and we should have done the same in Iraq.

Great theory except for one persistent fact, like weapons of mass destruction and “We’ll be greeted as liberators,”  it is not true. Before talking about Iraq, lets look briefly and Germany, Japan, and South Korea. I was in the military in the late 1980’s to early 1990’s. I met soldiers who served in Germany and South Korea and myself was on of the anti-backslider force in Japan. Soldiers recounted and regaled the beauty of the countries, the delicious food, and the fun and girls they had. Some brought local girls they married to their next duty stations and worked to try to get back to those countries at least one more time before they retired. Even guys I worked with who were in Vietnam said that Saigon was a blast during the war.

I have yet to meet a U.S. veteran with tales of enjoying leave in an Iraqi city, sampling the cuisine, drinking the arak, or dating the girls (or boys). I doubt even Paul Bremer ever once ate grilled fish at a restaurant on the banks of the Tigris – apparently the thing to do at a time before we liberated the country. And why didn’t military members and Mr. Bremer do these things? Two reasons: 1) Everyone hated us and wanted us gone, and 2) it was too dangerous.

Besides the normal reading and TV watching that inform what we know about Iraq, over the last 15 years I have represented many Iraqis in the United States, mainly but not exclusively, asylum seekers. The reasons for seeking asylum changed as time advanced from early 2000 to now. Before the war in 2003, most asylum seekers I dealt with were Chaldeans from northern Iraq fleeing Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party. The usual claims were based on coercion to join the Ba’ath Party and accusations of selling arms to the Kurds. A lot of stories of persecution involved being arrested and then a father or uncle paying some Iraqi captain a bribe to allow the imprisoned son or nephew to escape Iraq to Turkey and onward to the United States. I remember reading a news report in 2004 or 2005 about captured records from the Iraqi Army documenting rampant corruption, allaying concerns I had in my own mind that it was uncanny how many bribe-taking captains there were in Saddam’s army.

I should add that these cases did not go well. Immigration judges had heard a lot of similar corrupt-captain stories and were not buying them. There were lots of cases on appeal by the time the U.S. invaded in 2003.

After the invasion, Chaldeans already in the system had an even harder time. Now, immigration judges were finding that any asylum claims based on persecution by the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein were no longer viable as the Ba’ath Party and Saddam were gone and a Pax Americana had spread to Iraq – it was safe to go home and safe to stay home.

It did not take long for the country to slip away from the liberators. Chaldeans came streaming to the U.S. now, not because of Saddam, but because of the absence of Saddam. Iraq had gone from a country with safe streets, grilled fish by the Tigris, and obedience to the ruler and his corrupt and brutal party, to a place of wanton sectarian violence with Chaldeans stuck in the middle with no protector. I recall a hearing I had in the early period of the transition to anarchy, before we accepted it as true, when a government attorney questioning an asylum seeker about why he was not grateful that Saddam and the Ba’ath were gone and that Americans were now in Baghdad keeping it safe for Christians. He then added, to the obvious fury of the immigration judge, that Americans were dying every day to keep him safe, so why shouldn’t he just happily go home? The irony was lost on him that if the country was safe to go back to, American service members  would not be dying every day. These cases also did not go so well and many went up on appeal.

By the mid-2000’s, the populace in general and immigration judges in particular were absorbing the fact that Iraq was a disaster and Chaldeans could not live there. Cases were routinely reopened based on the changed circumstances. Additionally, a special visa was created in 2008 to help people who had worked for us get out of there because mere association with the liberators was a death sentence. I recently reviewed a case where one family lived through the entire life cycle of the Iraq War with the case going up and down on appeal three times  – asylum denied before the invasion and then remanded; denied again in the Pax America phase and then remanded; and finally granted at the beginning of the next decade.

The myth is that President Bush’s surge, counter to the Iraq Report created by foreign and public policy luminaries that concluded that it was all a lost cause, put Humpty Dumpty together gain. Facts on the ground and my own experiences speaking with and representing Iraqis belied all this. During and after the surge, Americans were still dying all the time. Car bombs were going off all the time. Churches were being attacked and blown up all the time. People continued to flee. No one was returning. In addition to Chaldeans, now new clients included Sunnis and Shi’is caught in the middle of a civil war in a fractured country. An Iraqi diaspora, once safe working in Gulf countries, were slowly being forced out and found they could not go home to Iraq under threat of death.

Imagining the post-surge Iraq as a Switzerland that just needed 20,000 American babysitters to thrive was not an observation anyone made in 2007-2011. It takes the wisdom that comes from forgetting what happened six years ago and abject partisanship of people that will blame President Obama for anything for people to even dare to say such nonsense now.

America left Iraq because no one wanted us there. Shi’ites and Sunnis had their own reckoning to do with each other and were waiting for us to leave to get it done. Had we stayed, we would have been decimated bomb by bomb and limb by limb until we left. We knew it in 2008 when we elected a president who said he would not countenance it. We knew it in 2012 when we re-elected him. People who go back and read about 2007-2014 know it. People who lived there know it and so do the people who the people who lived there spoke to about it when they got here trying to avoid having to go back. With 20-20 hindsight and notwithstanding the rise of ISIL, the answer still is Yes and No. Posted May 25, 2015.


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