President Bush and supporters of the war in Iraq have frequently suggested that removing Saddam Hussein from power and replacing him with a democratically elected government would result in the spread of democracy throughout the Middle East.
It's a lovely thought, but unfortunately it hasn't happened.
In fact, thus far, the only tangible thing that the Iraq War has spread throughout the Middle East is Iraqis. According to the DC-based US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Iraq was the biggest source of new refugees in the world last year.
An estimated 433,000 Iraqis fled Iraq last year for neighboring Jordan. Another 211,500 headed to Syria.
Put your socks back on, I've done the math for you. That's a total of 644,500 Iraqi refugees in 2005, more than three times as many refugees as Iraq generated in 2004. That's more new refugees last year than fled war-afflicted Sudan (home of an ongoing genocide), Congo (home of what Time magazine recently called the "Deadliest War in the World") and even Nepal (home of Mount Everest).
It's equal to roughly 2.5 percent of Iraq's population. To put that tragedy on an American scale, imagine that 2.5 percent of our population in 2005 -- every resident of Alabama and Mississippi -- packed up and left the country. For those of you who wouldn't consider that a tragedy, imagine everyone living in Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and the Dakotas packing a few bags and leaving the country.
If you add up all of Iraq's refugees from last year with the ones who are still refugees from previous years (including those who fled under Saddam but never returned), the total is 888,700 people. Iraq is the third-largest overall source of refugees in the world after Palestine and Afghanistan.
The latest exodus is more tragic for Iraq than the raw numbers indicate. The country's professional class -- the doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, pet therapists and telemarketers that every modern society needs -- are disappearing en masse. According to the USCRI's report, 40 percent of Iraq's professionals have moved abroad.
Why are so many Iraqis fleeing their homeland?
One possibility is that, with electric power so sporadic, Iraqis are unable to see and hear President Bush, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity telling them that Iraq is making "good progress." Instead, they're stuck reading liberal newspapers that only report car bombings and ignore school openings.
A nonfictional possibility is that sectarian death squads, daily car bombings, rampant crime, kidnappings, blooming theocracy, a weak economy and, oh, I don't know, maybe the United States military, have turned Iraq into an even less hospitable place for some than it was under Saddam.
You know the situation in your country is bad when moving to Syria seems like a good idea. Syria doesn't allow Iraqi refugees to work legally or buy arable land. To feed and shelter themselves, Iraqis are forced to work illegally, typically in low-paying and temporary jobs. The lucky ones find work as itinerant laborers.
The unlucky ones, usually young women and girls, often end up as prostitutes. According to the USCRI, Iraqi girls as young as 12 are engaged in prostitution in Syria. You know your country is in awful shape when selling your body or your child's body in a neighboring country is considered a step up.
One might think that the US government would be pushing for an international effort to help out these recent Iraqi refugees. After all, their plight is the direct result of the US invasion and subsequent inability to stabilize Iraq.
Sadly, one would be wrong if one thought that.
If there's a statement on record from Bush or anyone else in the White House that has so much as obliquely acknowledged the enormity of Iraq's refugee crisis, I've missed it. The White House's Iraq Web site ignores it. Ditto the State Department's. I guess that with all of the handsome photos from Bush's recent drive-by photo-opping to Iraq that there wasn't any room left on the servers for some stupid refugee story.