Many Americans have been wondering why so many Iraqis are willing to fight for militias and terrorist groups but not for the American-backed government. Look at it from their perspective. Would you stake your life on a regime whose existence depends on Washington’s continuing support? Given our long, shameful record of leaving allies in the lurch, that has never seemed to be a smart bet.
We have been betraying friends since our first overseas conflict, against the Barbary pirates who captured ships off the African coast and enslaved their crews. To defeat the pasha of Tripoli, the U.S. made common cause with his brother, Hamet Karamanli. In 1804, American envoy William Eaton led a motley force of mercenaries and Marines across North Africa to install Karamanli on the throne. The offensive was called off prematurely when President Jefferson’s envoy reached a deal with the pasha to free his American captives in return for $60,000. Karamanli was evacuated to the U.S., but his family members were left as hostages. Eaton raged: “Our too credulous ally is sacrificed to a policy, at the recollection of which, honor recoils, and humanity bleeds.”
Something similar could have been said about U.S. conduct after World War I. President Wilson was the leading champion of “national self-determination” at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, yet the U.S. did nothing to safeguard the states he helped midwife. We stood by, for instance, when Czechoslovakia and Poland were occupied by the Nazis. This callous indifference was repeated after World War II when we did too little to save the Eastern Europeans from Russian occupation.
Postwar U.S. administrations compounded this duplicity when they urged the “captive” peoples behind the Iron Curtain to seek their freedom and yet did nothing to help the East Germans in their 1953 uprising, the Hungarians in 1956 or the Czechs in 1968. No one is suggesting that Washington should have risked World War III, but we might have put more diplomatic and economic pressure on the Soviet Union to mitigate the worst of their crackdowns. If we weren’t willing to do even that, we shouldn’t have instigated the uprisings in the first place.
Cuban anti-communists fared just as poorly at American hands. On April 17, 1961, 1,500 exiles organized by the CIA landed at the Bay of Pigs. The Cuban army counterattacked, and the rebels were killed or captured. The outcome might have been different if the U.S. had been willing to provide air cover, but President Kennedy refused to do so because he wanted to hide U.S. complicity.
In the following years, the U.S. waged a massive war to stop a communist takeover of South Vietnam. By 1973, we had tired of the conflict, and the South Vietnamese were left to fend for themselves. Thousands were killed. Many others wound up in brutal reeducation camps or took to the seas in leaky boats.
The U.S. was equally inconstant in its support of the rebels battling the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s. We went from backing the Contras to cutting them off, heedless of the cost to fighters who were risking their necks to fight an oppressive regime. And then there was the shah of Iran, installed by the CIA and Britain’s MI6 in 1953 and then abandoned by the United States in 1979—and, unlike Hamet Karamanli, not even given refuge on our shores.
But that was nothing compared to the betrayal of the Iraqi Kurds and Shiites in 1991. President George H.W. Bush urged Iraqis to “take matters into their own hands” and overthrow Saddam Hussein, yet stood by as Hussein’s henchmen brutally put down the uprisings. The U.S. did not even shoot down Iraqi gunships, which could have been done at little risk to American forces.
This long trail of American treachery has grave consequences for our foreign policy. It emboldens our enemies (the Bay of Pigs led to the Cuban missile crisis, for example), dispirits our friends and makes it harder to achieve our objectives. Knowing our history, few Iraqi leaders are counting on American support in the future. They’re making their deals with the devil, whether neighboring states or sectarian militias. And if we do scuttle out of Iraq prematurely, Afghans and others whose support we seek will get the message again: Don’t trust Uncle Sam.
The least we can do is to assure those Iraqis who have worked closely with American forces—whether as janitors, translators, soldiers or bureaucrats—that, if we do leave, they and their families will receive asylum in the United States. We should not sacrifice another “too credulous ally” on the altar of a dishonorable and inhumane policy.
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