“Let’s be perfectly coldblooded about it,” President Richard M. Nixon mused to Henry A. Kissinger. “South Vietnam is probably never gonna survive anyway.” It was August 1972, and Nixon was worried about the inevitable collapse of South Vietnam after American forces withdrew. Mr. Kissinger concurred: “We’ve got to find some formula that holds the thing together a year or two. If we settle it, say, this October, by January ’74 no one will give a damn.”
This formula became known as the Decent Interval — a period of time after a withdrawal that would be long enough for Americans to go from war fatigue to amnesia. Thirty-two months later, when Saigon fell, there was no chance that the American public would countenance military re-engagement. Indeed, congressional concerns over being dragged back into conflict even threatened efforts to address a spiraling refugee crisis.
It’s hard these days to escape the cold shadow of the Decent Interval. Throughout the long withdrawal from Iraq, my organization, the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, which helps Iraqis who are endangered because they once worked alongside Americans in roles like interpreters, drivers and advisers, implored the Obama administration to draw up a plan to protect them. But this White House has always maintained a degree of detachment from Iraq: The Obama team campaigned in 2008 on getting out, and in 2012 on the fact that they’d gotten out. They had convinced themselves that Iraq was in better shape than it was, seemingly secure in the knowledge that the American public wouldn’t give them too hard a time if Iraq unraveled.
Bipartisan legislation did create a category of Special Immigrant Visas for Iraqis who had helped us, but bureaucracy strangled their distribution. Thousands of Iraqis who worked with our troops, diplomats and aid workers remain in limbo, desperate for a visa allowing them to reach safety. The same story is playing out in Afghanistan.
This problem did not go unanticipated. A year before the war’s end, Congress passed a bill instructing the executive branch to put a contingency plan in place, but the White House never did. Two weeks before the last American troops left in December 2011, a National Security Council staff member told List Project lawyers, “We know the Iraqis on your list have a subjective fear, but there’s no objective basis for them to be afraid after we leave.”
Several months later, an Iraqi who had operated a forklift on a United States Army base was decapitated; for more than a year, he had tried desperately to get the refugee bureaucracy to process his application. I found it impossible to tell his widow and son that the Obama administration thought they should try to be less subjective in their fear.
Two and a half years since our last troops departed, perhaps 1.5 million Iraqis have been uprooted by new fighting that may shatter Iraq as a nation. Dozens of families email me with subject lines imploring: “Please Help Me,” “Need Support Please,” “Please help!!!!!!!”
But there is next to nothing I can do. Anne C. Richard, the assistant secretary of state in charge of refugee issues, has informed me that the embassy in Baghdad has evacuated the few staffers through whose hands refugee petitions had to go; that means the cases of the applicants for refugee status remain frozen wherever they were when the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria began to take over northern Iraq.
Of the 90 Iraqis with whom I worked during my time in Baghdad and Falluja, 85 had been chased from Iraq and three had been assassinated by the time the assault began. When I last heard from one of the remaining two, he was holed up in his apartment with his wife, his 5-year-old daughter and a Colt pistol — not much protection against ISIS if the militants find them. The other, named Jalal, fled to Turkey last week with his wife and three daughters. He was lucky, in a way, since all flights out of Baghdad are now booked solid until July 15. But his voice carried only defeat when we spoke by phone. His life, he said, is already ruined.
“I’ve lost all the hope in everything,” he told me. “I left everything back there — my car, my house, everything. We have to run away for how long? One year? Two years? For how long? I’m 37. I have been in this drama for 10 years. I’m fed up with everything. I need to raise my daughters. I need to secure their lives, secure their future.”
All three daughters are traumatized; the middle one, 8 years old, can no longer control her bladder. Jalal applied for a special immigrant visa years ago. “I sent them emails and emails and emails,” he told me. “The last interview was October 2010. We are now in 2014! Four years, you’re doing administrative processing? What the hell have you been doing for four years? We’re being killed here, kidnapped, and tortured.”
“They left us behind,” Jalal said bitterly. “It’s the same story as Vietnam.”
In America, the airwaves are once again choked with political bile and finger-pointing, a shabby score-settling over who was right a decade ago and who really lost Iraq. And once again, those who helped us and now need our help are ignored. A decent interval has passed, and Americans don’t really give a damn about Iraq.
Kirk W. Johnson, a former reconstruction coordinator in Iraq, is the founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies, and the author of To Be a Friend Is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind.