How to stop genocide in Iraq

SAMANTHA POWER, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning " 'A Problem From Hell': America and the Age of Genocide."

THOSE WHO SUPPORT remaining in Iraq increasingly can be heard invoking the specter of genocide as grounds for staying. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) warned that, if U.S. troops leave, “You’ll see a bloodletting in Baghdad that makes Srebrenica look like a Sunday school picnic.”

Some defenders of President Bush’s approach, having backed the Iraq war from the start, have now settled on genocide warnings after each of their original justifications for being in Iraq — weapons of mass destruction, terrorism prevention, energy diversification, regional stabilization and democracy promotion — has crumbled one by one.

Other proponents of remaining in Iraq are not, in fact, looking to redeem their own faulty judgment. They are genuinely frightened that, as ferocious as the civil war there has become, a U.S. withdrawal could unleash an all-out slaughter. With increasing numbers of civilian corpses piling up every day, they have reason to worry.


Although critics of withdrawal do a masterful job of painting a grim picture of the apocalypse that awaits, they offer no account of how U.S. forces in Iraq will do more than preserve a status quo that is already deteriorating into wholesale ethnic cleansing. Although more than 115,000 U.S. troops have been in Iraq for the last four years, about 3.8 million Iraqis have fled their homes and at least 50,000 Iraqis are fleeing each month. It would be nice to think the surge of troops to Baghdad would help to staunch the flow. But with only one-third of the new troops on duty at any given time in a city of 6 million people, they will have no more success deterring the militias intent on carving out homogeneous Shiite or Sunni neighborhoods than U.S. forces have had to date. About 74% of Shiites polled and 91% of Sunnis — the people who have the most to fear from genocide — would like to see U.S. forces gone by the end of the year.

Unfortunately, many of those who favor a U.S. exit have recklessly waved off atrocity warnings or taken to blaming Iraqis for their plight. What is needed to stave off even greater carnage than we see today is neither assuming massacres won’t happen nor suspending thought until the surge has demonstrably failed in six months — at which point other options may no longer be viable. Rather, we must announce our intention to depart and use the intervening months to prioritize civilian protection by pursuing a bold set of measures combining political pressure, humanitarian relocation and judicial deterrence.

First, although it has a familiar and thus unsatisfying ring to it, the most viable long-term route to preventing mass atrocities is to use remaining U.S. leverage to bring about a political compromise that makes Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds feel economically stable, physically secure and adequately represented in political structures. This is consistent with the position of leading U.S. generals and the members of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, who have stressed that there is no military solution to Iraq’s meltdown and urged the administration, the Iraqis and regional players to reopen broad-ranging political negotiations.

Instead of simply lining up behind Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government in the hopes that it will one day decide to stop ethnic cleansing, recent withdrawal proposals in Congress use the leverage of the proposed redeployment to press Iraqis to reach a political solution. A plan put forth by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has come under neoconservative fire for setting a target departure date, but it provides for flexibility to suspend the U.S. drawdown if Iraqis meet the key economic, political and security benchmarks they have committed to achieve this year. The plan would also retain some U.S. forces in Iraq and the region to help deter atrocities by sectarian militias and aggression from Iraq’s neighbors.

However, if this political pressure fails and U.S. forces remain unable to stave off an ever-widening civil war, the U.S. should go further and announce its willingness to assist in the voluntary transport and relocation of Iraqi civilians in peril. If Iraqis tell us that they would feel safer in religiously homogenous neighborhoods, and we lack the means to protect them where they are, we should support and protect them in their voluntary, peaceful evacuation — a means, one might say, to preempt genocide in advance of our departure.

The administration must help secure asylum for those Iraqis — and there are millions who fit this bill — who have a “well-founded fear of persecution.” At the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ conference scheduled for April, which will be attended by Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and the United States, the overburdened countries of first asylum (Syria is sheltering 1 million Iraqis; Jordan has taken in 700,000) must be persuaded to reopen their gates to fleeing Iraqis. And Western countries must dramatically expand the number of resettlement slots for Iraqis. Astoundingly, the U.S. took in just 202 Iraqis last year and, although the maximum for this year was recently raised to 7,000, this is still not sufficient.


Finally, if we are serious about preventing further sectarian horrors, the U.S. must send a clear signal to the militias and political leaders who order or carry out atrocities that they will be brought to justice for their crimes. That means offering belated U.S. support to the International Criminal Court, the only credible, independent body with the jurisdiction to prosecute crimes against humanity and genocide.

Many of those who say U.S. troops should stay in Iraq to prevent genocide are the same people who for political reasons refuse to acknowledge the gravity of the calamity unfolding on our watch. The same people who modeled a war on best-case scenarios are now resisting ending a war by invoking worst-case scenarios. But after years of using the alleged needs of the Iraqi people to justify U.S. political postures, it is long past time to use the leverage we still have to actually advance Iraqi welfare.