TRUDY RUBIN: Obama should honor promise to our Iraqi helpers

By Trudy Rubin

In September 2007, Barack Obama made a stump speech berating the Bush team for breaking faith with Iraqis who had helped Americans.
“One tragic outcome of this war,” said Obama, ”is that the Iraqis who stood with America – the interpreters, embassy workers, and subcontractors – are being targeted for assassination. … And yet our doors are shut.
“That is not how we treat our friends. That is not who we are as Americans.”
If that is so, Mr. President, why are our doors still virtually closed to our Iraqi helpers, as we exit their country? Why are you consigning many of them to death?
In 2008, Congress passed legislation calling for 25,000 special immigrant visas, or SIVs, to be issued over a five-year period – to Iraqis whose lives were endangered because they’d worked for U.S. soldiers or civilians. The law’s criteria were so arduous that only about 3,600 have been issued; at least 1,500 are pending a decision.
What’s worse, the numbers have slowed to a trickle just as we’re departing.
U.S. troops are leaving Iraq by the end of 2011. I’ve received dozens of e-mails from desperate Iraqi interpreters (some with glowing recommendations from senior U.S. military officers) who have all received death threats. Some interpreters are getting kicked off U.S. bases where they’ve lived for safety’s sake, because those bases are closing.
When the British left Iraqi staff behind in 2006, 17 of their interpreters were publicly executed in Basra.
We promised to get our Iraqi staff out. To quote candidate Obama: ”Keeping this moral obligation is a key part of how we turn the page in Iraq.”
So let’s cut to the chase, President Obama: Do you intend to honor your promise?
Senior administration officials tell me of top-level meetings dedicated to getting the SIV backlog cleared – “within months.” I believe they are sincere, but the numbers aren’t moving.
There’s only one solution. In the words of Kirk Johnson, who runs the List Project, an organization dedicated to helping these Iraqis: ”If President Obama said this was a moral obligation and we’re going to save these people because they saved U.S. lives, do you really think there would be an eight-month wait?”
No, I don’t.
There is one obvious way to clear the logjam: an airlift to remove our Iraqi friends from danger.
There is plenty of precedent for such an airlift. In 1975, after initially abandoning massive numbers of our South Vietnamese allies, Gerald Ford finally authorized a massive airlift to evacuate them to Guam and, eventually, to the United States.
In 1996, Bill Clinton ordered Operation Pacific Haven, which flew 6,000 Iraqi Kurds and other opposition activists from Iraqi Kurdestan to Guam. There are more recent precedents, too. The Poles, Danes, and Australians airlifted their Iraqi staff out out of the country; after the massacre in Basra, the British returned and flew out endangered staff.
In 2007, Obama said we had a ”moral obligation” to those Iraqis who helped us. History will judge him on how he honors that pledge.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at trubinphillynews.com.