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Imagine 50 Million American Refugees

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I'm an innumerate, but the figures on this -- the saddest story of our Iraq debacle -- are so large that even I can do the necessary computations. The population of the United States is now just over 300,000,000. The population of Iraq at the time of the U.S. invasion was perhaps in the 26-27 million range. Between March 2003 and today, a number of reputable sources place the total of Iraqis who have fled their homes -- those who have been displaced internally and those who have gone abroad -- at between 4.5 million and 5 million individuals. If you take that still staggering lower figure, approximately one in six Iraqis is either a refugee in another country or an internally displaced person.

Now, consider the equivalent in terms of the U.S. population. If Iraq had invaded the United States in March 2003 with similar results, in less than five years approximately 50 million Americans would have fled their homes, assumedly flooding across the Mexican and Canadian borders, desperately burdening weaker neighboring economies. It would be an unparalleled, even unimaginable, catastrophe. Consider, then, what we would think if, back in Baghdad, politicians and the media were hailing, or at least discussing positively, the "success" of the prime minister's recent "surge strategy" in the U.S., even though it had probably been instrumental in creating at least one out of every ten of those refugees, 5 million displaced Americans in all. Imagine what our reaction would be to such blithe barbarism.

Back in the real world, of course, what Michael Schwartz terms the "tsunami" of Iraqi refugees, the greatest refugee crisis on the planet, has received only modest attention in this country (which managed, in 2007, to accept but 1,608 Iraqi refugees out of all those millions -- a figure nonetheless up from 2006). As with so much else, the Bush administration takes no responsibility for the crisis, nor does it feel any need to respond to it at an appropriate level. Until now, to the best of my knowledge, no one has even put together a history of the monumental, horrific tale of human suffering that George W. Bush's war of choice and subsequent occupation unleashed, or fully considered what such a brain drain, such a loss of human capital, might actually mean for Iraq's future.

But the author of the upcoming book, War Without End, The Iraq Debacle in Context , Michael Schwartz has just taken the first pass at history when it comes to this crisis. "Iraq's Tidal Wave of Misery" is, in fact, a monumental effort, laying out the three great waves of Iraqi displacement and dispossession: The first of these came in 2003 with the American occupation's policies of massive de-Baathification of the Iraqi government, demobilization of the Iraqi military, and the shutting down of Iraq's state-owned industries (combined with the rise of a widespread business in kidnapping); the second came when, in 2004, the U.S. military began to attack and invade insurgent strongholds, as they did the Sunni city of Falluja, using the full kinetic force of its massive fire power; the third came with the rise of a Sunni/Shia civil war and campaigns of ethnic cleansing, especially in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad (helped along by the U.S. "surge strategy").

Schwartz lays out the staggering, "tsunami"-level numbers involved, analyzes the disproportionate number of people with professional, managerial, or administrative backgrounds who fled the country ("… whereas less than 1% of Iraqis had a postgraduate education, nearly 10% of refugees in Syria had advanced degrees, including 4.5% with doctorates…"), gives a sense of the pain and deprivation inflicted, and above all suggests what it means for the future of a country like Iraq to have had such a "brain drain," such a largely irreversible loss of "human capital."

He concludes:

"From the vast out-migration and internal migrations of its desperate citizens comes damage to society as a whole that is almost impossible to estimate. The displacement of people carries with it the destruction of human capital. The destruction of human capital deprives Iraq of its most precious resource for repairing the damage of war and occupation, condemning it to further infrastructural decline. This tide of infrastructural decline is the surest guarantee of another wave of displacement, of future floods of refugees. As long as the United States keeps trying to pacify Iraq, it will create wave after wave of misery."

Tom Engelhardt, editor of Tomdispatch.com, is co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture .

 
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