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Kristof Pleads for Books, not Bombs

July 9, 2008


New York Times‘ columnist Nicholas Kristof spends a lot of his time traveling to locations never seen by most globe-trotting tourists. Such ventures, however, provide him with a world view that can only come through such experiences. I am working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Department of Commerce to introduce U.S. business people to opportunities in Iraq, especially opportunities in the Kurdistan region where the environment is sufficiently stable to permit economic growth. A group of such business people were recently brought to Iraq to see conditions there for themselves. Sometimes that is the only way to really appreciate a situation. One of Kristof’s latest ventures took him to countries surrounding Iraq and into areas where Iraqi refugees have fled over the course of the conflict there. He now fears that we are creating a new intractable security situation that will rival the Israeli-Palestinian situation [“Books, Not Bombs,” 26 June 2008]. He writes:

“The dirty little secret of the Iraq war isn’t in Baghdad or Basra. Rather, it’s found in the squalid brothels of Damascus and the poorest neighborhoods of East Amman. Some two million Iraqis have fled their homeland and are now sheltering in run-down neighborhoods in surrounding countries. These are the new Palestinians, the 21st-century Arab diaspora that threatens the region’s stability. Many youngsters are getting no education, and some girls are pushed into prostitution, particularly in Damascus. Impoverished, angry, disenfranchised, unwanted, these Iraqis are a combustible new Middle Eastern element that no one wants to address or even think about.”

Kristof is right to be concerned. As Bradd C. Hayes and Jeffrey I. Sands wrote in their book Doing Windows: Non-Traditional Military Responses to Complex Emergencies:

“[Refugees from conflict] become economic liabilities, have increased health risks, and form the core of politically discontent groups. Therefore, getting them out of refugee camps is one of the international community’s highest priorities.”

Policymakers (in the U.S. and elsewhere) apparently have not read the book because Kristof reports that Iraqi refugees have been all but forgotten. He believes the U.S. in particular owes it to these people to set things right.

“American hawks prefer to address the region’s security challenges by devoting billions of dollars to permanent American military bases. A simpler way to fight extremism would be to pay school fees for refugee children to ensure that they at least get an education and don’t become forever marginalized and underemployed. We broke Iraq, and we have a moral responsibility to those whose lives have been shattered by our actions. Helping them is also in our national interest, for we’ll regret our myopia if we allow young Iraqi refugees to grow up uneducated and unemployable, festering in their societies.”

Kristof writes about the enormity of the challenge and why nobody wants to discuss it:

“Iraqi refugees don’t get help in part because this is a problem that almost everybody wants to hide. Syria and Jordan worry that if the refugees get assistance, then they will stay indefinitely. The U.S. doesn’t want to talk about a crisis created by our war, and Iraq’s Shiite leaders don’t much care about Sunnis or Christians displaced by Shiite militias. ‘It’s among the largest humanitarian crises in the world today,’ said Michael Kocher, a refugee expert at the International Rescue Committee, which recently published a report on the crisis. ‘It’s getting very little attention from the Security Council on down, which we feel is scandalous and also bad strategy.’ It’s easy to blame the surrounding countries, such as Jordan and Syria, for not being more hospitable to Iraqis. But those countries have, however grudgingly, tolerated the influx despite the burden and political risk. Iraqi refugees are hard to count but may now amount to 8 percent of Jordan’s population of six million. The average Jordanian family, which opposed the war in the first place, is now bearing a cost that may be as much as $1,000 per year for providing for the refugees.”

Keeping the Iraqis in refugee camps in perpetuity is both bad policy and morally indefensible. What we need is a change of perspective — a different way of looking at the challenge. Jonathan Moore has argued that the “reintegration into society of millions of repatriated refugees, returned displaced [persons], and demobilized soldiers presents an opportunity for wholesale progress in recovery and renewal” [The UN and Complex Emergencies: Rehabilitation in Third World Transitions (Geneva: UN Research Institute for Social Development, 1996)]. Looking at Iraqi repatriation as an opportunity rather than a problem may help garner support for Kristof’s course of action. Kristof concludes:

“We have already seen, in the case of Palestinians, how a refugee diaspora can destabilize a region for decades. If Jordan were to collapse in part from such pressures, that would be a catastrophe — and the best way to prevent that isn’t to give it Blackhawk helicopters, but help with school fees and school construction. If we let the Iraqi refugee crisis drag on — and especially if we allow young refugees to miss an education so that they will never have a future — then we are sentencing ourselves to endure their wrath for decades to come. Educating Iraqis may not be as glamorous as bombing them, but it will do far more good.”

Kristof is being too sarcastic when he writes that “educating Iraqis” is not “as glamorous as bombing them.” I have met far too many military people who are genuinely excited about helping the Iraqi people get back on their feet. These military people appreciate far more than their political masters the importance of programs that bring stability and prosperity to people’s lives. There is far more satisfaction in helping people than in killing enemies — although both may be necessary.


Iraq will probably not be the last intervention undertaken by the international community. When the next one comes around, they should not ignore the lessons that were re-learned during the Iraq War. Andrew Natsios has identified three operational principles that militaries should observe that would help mitigate future refugee crises [“Eleven Iron Laws for Responding to Complex Humanitarian Emergencies,” speech given to participants in Exercise Agile Lion, U.S. European Command, 27 June 1995].

“First, avoid military actions that will encourage population movements and the subsequent creation of displaced camps;

“second, work with humanitarian relief organizations to develop a mix of incentives so people will not leave their home villages in the first place, and

“third, if camps are already formed, work with humanitarian relief groups — as the military did so successfully in Kurdistan — to return people voluntarily and as soon as practicable to their homes.”

In Iraq, we are way beyond the “soon as practicable” timeframe, but it is not too late to address this challenge in a positive way. Returning Iraqis will need homes and jobs. Refugees should be given jobs helping to build the homes and other supporting infrastructure. Children need to get into school and off the streets. Hope needs to replace despair. This is best done by giving people a stake in Iraq’s future. Living in camps outside the country gives them neither hope nor a stake in the future.

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