In September 2007, Barack Obama made a stump speech berating the Bush team for breaking faith with Iraqis who had helped Americans.
"One tragic outcome of this war," said Obama, "is that the Iraqis who stood with America -- the interpreters, embassy workers and subcontractors -- are being targeted for assassination. And yet our doors are shut.
"That is not how we treat our friends. That is not who we are as Americans."
If that is so, Mr. President, why are our doors still virtually closed to our Iraqi helpers, as we exit their country? Why are you consigning many of them to death?
In 2008, Congress passed legislation calling for 25,000 special immigrant visas, or SIVs, to be issued over a five-year period to Iraqis whose lives were endangered because they'd worked for U.S. soldiers or civilians. The law's criteria were so arduous that only about 3,600 have been issued; at least 1,500 are pending a decision.
What's worse, the numbers have slowed to a trickle just as we're departing. Only 10 SIVs were issued in August. The preliminary figure for September is 46. At that rate, it will be years before the backlog is cleared.
U.S. troops are leaving Iraq by the end of 2011. I've received dozens of emails from desperate Iraqi interpreters (some with glowing recommendations from senior U.S. military officers) who have all received death threats. Some interpreters are getting kicked off U.S. bases where they've lived for safety's sake, because those bases are closing.
We promised to get our Iraqi staff out. To quote candidate Obama: "Keeping this moral obligation is a key part of how we turn the page in Iraq."
So let's cut to the chase, President Obama: Do you intend to honor your promise? Or will you betray the Iraqis who helped us? If you don't intervene, the SIV logjam won't budge.
That's because the SIV issue is caught in a bureaucratic thicket; nothing will move without White House intervention. The recent slowdown in SIVs stems from new security checks put in place after the arrest of two Iraqis in May in Kentucky for terrorist links. (These two rotten apples did not have SIVs.)
Senior administration officials tell me of top-level meetings dedicated to getting the SIV backlog cleared -- "within months." I believe they are sincere, but the numbers aren't moving.
There is one obvious way to clear the logjam: an airlift to remove our Iraqi friends from danger.
In 1996, Bill Clinton ordered Operation Pacific Haven, which flew 6,000 Iraqi Kurds and other opposition activists from Iraqi Kurdestan to Guam, after Saddam Hussein's troops invaded the region. The operation took only two weeks, and security checks were conducted in Guam. If Obama ordered a similar airlift, security checks could also be conducted in Guam. Yet, senior administration officials tell me no airlift is being considered.
Administration officials also tell me that efforts to clear the backlog will become more intense as the end of the year approaches. But if those efforts fail, it may be too late to organize an airlift.
In 2007, Obama said we had a "moral obligation" to those Iraqis who helped us. History will judge him on how he honors that pledge.