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September 28, 2007

Bill Moyers talks with NPR's Deborah Amos and THE NEW YORKER's George Packer.

BILL MOYERS: We turn now to one of the most neglected consequences of the war in Iraq, the humanitarian crisis that's been unfolding since the American invasion 4 1/2 years ago. It's almost beyond comprehension, two million inter-refugees inside the country, a million dispossessed in Baghdad alone, their numbers rising stupendously during the surge. Another two million have fled to other countries, over 1 1/2 million to Syria, another million or so to Lebanon and to Jordan which has now closed its borders. Among the refugees are Iraqis escaping reprisals for cooperating with Americans. The Bush Administration has allowed fewer than 1,000 of them into the U.S.

This week the Senate passed the Iraqi Refugee Crisis Act, calling on the President to do more. We're seeing a human tragedy unfold with consequences that can only compound in the months to come as the power vacuum in Iraq spreads. Joining me to talk about this is George Packer. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker who's acclaimed for his articles, essays and reviews on foreign affairs. In 2005 his book, The Assassin's Gate, America in Iraq was named by the New York Times as one of the ten best of the year. This week he's more justly proud of being the father of a brand new baby, Charlie, obviously also one of the ten best of the year. And National Public Radio's, Deborah Amos, who's been a colleague of mine in public broadcasting since 1977, 30 years now. Deb Amos is one of the few American journalists to cover this story. She's just back from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, her fifth trip to the region to report on the refugees. Welcome to you both.

DEBORAH AMOS:: Thank you.


BILL MOYERS: Give me a human face to these people. Who are they?

DEBORAH AMOS:: So many of them, Bill, are the doctors, the professors, the architects, the intellectuals, the poets. There are the poor who have left. But this community that's now in Damascus and Amman and increasingly going to Lebanon is the middle class. These are the technocrats, the kind of people that you need if you want to rebuild a country. And this is the demographics that has left Baghdad.

BILL MOYERS: What is life like for them now? What-- what is-- we think of refugees in the Middle East as Palestinian refugees living in those awful camps. What-- what do these people face?

GEORGE PACKER: As Deb says, they have these -- what you might call middle class concerns. They're not so much worried about food although I think as their savings dwindle they will. They worry about their children's education, health care and the fact that they really can't work and so they have - they are a desperate population but they're not the kind of refugees we think of coming out of Darfur or Somalia. They are very much a middle class population and the great problem for them is they all left Iraq with some money and they're running out of money, and a few of them are actually going back to Iraq because they don't have enough to spare.

BILL MOYERS: I think I heard you report not long ago that in Damascus there's something like 20 to 30 people, refugees, living in the same room?

DEBORAH AMOS:: Many people do that. 20 people living in one apartment.

BILL MOYERS: For how long?

DEBORAH AMOS:: They do it for months. And it's not because they're all broke. It's because they have no idea how long they have to hold out. And when you run out of money the choices are very stark. The-- the incidents of child prostitution in Damascus is rising dramatically. There's a-- there's a belt of clubs above Damascus. And this is where some Iraqi families are prostituting their daughters. That's how dire--

BILL MOYERS: For money?

DEBORAH AMOS:: For money. That is how dire it is becoming in Damascus. Or you go home. There was a young man who was a sculptor. And he was targeted in Baghdad. He came to Damascus. He ran out of money. He went home last week and he's dead.

BILL MOYERS: George, why didn't the administration anticipate this?

GEORGE PACKER: I think it's a piece-- with everything that's gone wrong with the war, for political reasons. To acknowledge that there was a huge refugee crisis in the region, to acknowledge that Iraqis who work with Americans are a uniquely endangered population in Iraq-- I mean, they are as hounded and helpless as European Jews in the 1940's -- would have been to acknowledge that the war was going badly. That it was creating more pain than it was alleviating, that the picture of steady, slow progress was false. And so the administration simply chose to ignore this crisis. I mean, for the first year or two of the refugee crisis our policy was, "It's not happening." More recently our policy has been we're committing some funds, rather small compared to the need. But-- our real objective is to create a safe and stable Iraq to which these refugees can then return. In other words, it's temporary. Well, it's not temporary. When you talk to Iraqis now compared to at the beginning of the war they no longer say in six months things will get better as they used to or in a year things will get better. They now say in two decades. In other words, for an Iraqi, not really in my lifetime. It will be my children that see a better Iraq. That means they're making decisions now about what they have to do with their families in order to ride out a 20 year horror. And that means they're not going back to Iraq.

BILL MOYERS: What's the political consequences of what George just described of a long migration of refugees who can not go home, who are running out of money, who are spilling over into the borders of the other countries. Taking-- I assume they're taking their warring, sectarian passions with them, are they not?

DEBORAH AMOS:: The passions, not necessarily their actions. They know very well that if kidnapping and assassinations begin in Damascus or Amman that those governments will kick the entire populations out. So, a lot of it is by remote control. A family has someone threatened back in Baghdad. But I think the larger point is this, Bill. We-- no refugee situation is like another. However, you can make some comparisons to the Palestinian refugee situation 50 years ago to the Afghan one more recently. And, these populations are easily recruited. It's not that the leadership of radical movements necessarily comes from the refugee population. But it's a great recruiting ground for children who have been out of school for-- in some cases now, three years.


DEBORAH AMOS:: And so it-- people in the region are starting to understand that this population could potentially be destabilizing. As time goes on, if there is no policy to address the situation they find themselves in. And so far there hasn't been one. Only one presidential contender in this country, Barack Obama, has even mentioned the crisis of the refugees. The others have not so far.

BILL MOYERS: In the Democratic Presidential debate on Wednesday night the leading Democrats, none of them would commit to taking American troops out of Iraq in the first terms of their administration, if they should win. That would mean American troops in Iraq until at least 2013. What-- what are the political implications of that with-- with this huge migration of-- of refugees?

GEORGE PACKER: I think that it just says if we're rather helpless now with 160,000, the highest number we've had in-- over the course of the war, troops in Iraq to prevent this outflow of people, when we're down to 50,000, we're going to be all the more unable to check this-- this-- I think, potentially destabilizing flow of people around the region. We will be in Iraq to do very specific missions. We will be there for counterterrorism. We will be there to train the Iraqi army. And we will be there to protect our own forces. We will not be there to secure the population which means civil war will continue to burn, maybe even in-- in, you know, a-- a bloodier way than now. And Iraqis will continue to leave the country. And they certainly won't be able to go back. So, I think we may well have American forces simply watching helplessly as Iraqis leave. Now, there have been some proposals to reconfigure our forces along the borders in-- to act, in a sense, as a net to prevent refugees from leaving.

BILL MOYERS: Border patrol like along the Texas-Mexican border.

GEORGE PACKER: Something like that and also to prevent irregular forces, jihadis and others from crossing into Iraq. I have some operational questions about that. How could our brigades, scattered in the desert, really stop people from crossing. And both morally and strategically is that a position we want to be in sending refugees back into the cities or creating giant camps policed by American soldiers which also will be, as all refugee camps are, recruiting grounds for extremists.

DEBORAH AMOS:: Although, it hardly matters. The Jordanian border is all but closed. And in September the Syrian government imposed a visa restriction on all Iraqis coming into the country. Up until that time, 30,000 crossed every month. Because they could-- it was the last border open. Syria has had enough with 1.5 million. So now, the policy is you have to go to the Syrian embassy in Baghdad. The problem is that Syrian embassy is one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baghdad so you can't go. So, that border is essentially closed.

BILL MOYERS: What are the governments you've been talking to-- government officials you've been talking to in Jordan-- Lebanon and Syria, what are-- what are they saying about this in terms of the long run?

DEBORAH AMOS:: The Syrians say, "It costs us an extra $2 billion a year." Because they subsidize bread, gasoline, health care. And this huge Iraqi population is putting such pressure on their own social makeup. The Jordanians say it costs them an extra billion dollars a year. And the international response has been astonishingly weak. The Saudis gave-- a couple of tons of dates, dates-- to this population that needs schools and health care. And we have contributed some money but not nearly enough. And so both of these countries are at their wits' end. Why is there no response to what they see-- what they know is a regional crisis outside of Iraq.

GEORGE PACKER: There's also a lot of bad history in that region between Iraqis and their neighbors. And what Iraqi refugees tell me is the idea of Arab brotherhood which the Syrian regime is based on is wearing very thin. And they don't feel that they're being treated at all as kinsmen or fellow Arabs or as brothers. And—so, and above all, the Iraqis who have worked with the Americans are treated as traitors. And-- and so, they are increasingly unwelcome. Shiah in Jordan are absolutely not welcome. Sectarianism plays a part in this especially, I think, in Jordan. And-- and so there-- there's a sense in which these Iraqis don't really have anywhere to go that wants them.

BILL MOYERS: How do you keep-- how do you distance yourself from this dilemma, this suffering? How do you come back here and be human?

DEBORAH AMOS:: It's very, very tough. And I've covered refugees for most of my career. And this is a different-- this is a different population. Because you can't help thinking that it could be me. You know, I've met journalists just like me who have the same level of education just like me. And they have been forced to take their savings. I don't know what I would do. So, it's not even empathy. You don't have to imagine. It is so stark and clear to you when you talk to people who speak English as well as you do that there's no translation problem. You get it. And I find it's exhausting when I come home. Because I actually get to go back to work.

GEORGE PACKER: I came back from my most recent trip to Iraq in the region having spent a lot of time talking to Iraqis like these with a feeling of shame that I had never had before as a journalist including covering this war. Because it's a war we brought to Iraq. We bear tremendous responsibility for what's happened in that country. And our official response whether at the embassy in Baghdad or the State Department in Washington or the White House has been so paltry, so indifferent that to hear them tell their stories, very individual stories about how they got a death threat and their supervisor said, "You can take a month off. But there's really not much more we can do for you." It-- my eyes were burning after these interviews. I've never quite felt that way.

BILL MOYERS: How many trips-- you've made five just to cover the refugees recently-- how many trips have you made since the war started?

DEBORAH AMOS:: I had four or five a year since the war started.

BILL MOYERS: So, do you think you'll be going back indefinitely?

DEBORAH AMOS:: Well, what you see-- I know-- I keep saying I cover Iraq. I just don't ever go there. But to do Lebanon, Jordan and Syria is essentially to cover Iraq. Because the issues that are roiling Iraq are the same issues that now are playing out. Everything is hooked to everything else. You know, the American standoff with Iran gets played out in Syria and in Lebanon. And so those issues will certainly keep me going back not just for the refugees but for this confrontational politics that grows out of Iraq and now has spread through the entire region. So, I will have plenty of work to do.

BILL MOYERS: So, you the United States is grafted to the Middle East for a long time to come?

GEORGE PACKER: I think so. And I don't think our population quite understands that. Because our leaders haven't leveled with them as has been the case throughout the war. And so I'm afraid we're going to feel like we're stuck there pointlessly when in fact what we need is a coherent policy that does ask what are our interests in-- over the next five or ten years? How can we secure them? Basically policy questions that right now nobody's asking on either side.

BILL MOYERS: Given what both of you have said and what you see and what you've been reporting, what's the political discussion? What should Washington be talking about right now?

DEBORAH AMOS:: I think they have to talk about a long term policy for these displaced Iraqis. Even with borders closed you still have in two countries bordering Iraq about ten percent of the population are now Iraqis. I mean, think about that in terms of American numbers, that, you know-- I don't know-- 20 million? It's really hard to make those comparisons. It's huge. They will have an effect on the policies, on the social fabric of Iraq's neighbors. None of it for the good without some sort of policy that addresses their needs -- educational, health -- and their desperation.

BILL MOYERS: The administration-- the President invaded Iraq for many reasons, overthrow Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction, al Qaeda, all of that. But arching over everything was the neo-conservative conviction that we were going to see the birth pains of democracy in the region you two cover. Are what you're talking about the birth pains of democracy?

GEORGE PACKER: No, we're talking about the return of real politic. This is the final, I think, defeat of the Bush Project for the Middle East. We're talking about the only way that we can begin to secure our interests is by cutting deals with regimes that we don't like. And I don't just--

BILL MOYERS: Dictators in Egypt, dictators in Syria, dictators in--Saudi Arabia?

GEORGE PACKER: We're now talking about a big arms sale to Saudi Arabia because we're worried about Iranian influence. Saudi Arabia was the problem four years ago. We-- we invaded Iraq, according to Paul Wolfowitz, in part to undercut the power of Wahabism and Saudi influence in the region. Now we're back to James Baker's foreign policy, which is essentially you make deals with people you don't like in order to create stability. We're back to hoping we can have stability because we don't have democracy.

BILL MOYERS: Look at the places that-- that are, you know, quote, in this democracy experiment, Iraq, Gaza and Lebanon. Now, the people who run the security states in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia say to their people, "That's what you want? That's what you want?" And they say of course no. What's the therefore to this?

DEBORAH AMOS:: And the therefore is this democratization policy has been a failure.

GEORGE PACKER: And the irony is the only country in the Middle East that has a genuine grass roots democratic and even secular movement is our number one enemy, Iran. That country has a-- a movement every bit as promising as what we saw in Eastern Europe and in other countries. And-- and yet we're almost at war with Iran. And I think if we do go to war with Iran it will set that movement back 30 years. So, it seems like the therefore is countries have to find their own way to democracy. We can help. But we can't force it.

BILL MOYERS: The drums have been beating this week for military action against Iran, beating in this country. Do you hear the same rhythm that you heard in the build up to the war in Iraq?

DEBORAH AMOS:: I hear it in the region. I've just come back. And so I'm not as tuned to the debate here. Because I hear it as a reverberation. But I can assure you that there is a rising anxiety level in the places I've just come back from, Beirut, Damascus, Amman, about the possibility of a war. And it's back. I mean, I've been going regularly. And it receded for a while. And I feel like people are much more anxious than they were just a few months ago.

GEORGE PACKER: What I fear is it will happen overnight. We will wake up one morning and discover that we have begun bombing targets inside Iran. And so there won't be a chance for all of the-- questions about war with Iran. What do you do afterward? You know, what-- what-- what do we do to protect our-- our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan from Iranian reprisals? What about Israel? Those questions have to be talked about now. But unlike Iraq this could happen very quickly. And it will be too late once those questions start getting asked.

BILL MOYERS: George Packer, Deb Amos, on that-- happy note-- thank you very much for being with me on The Journal.

DEBORAH AMOS:: Thank you.


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