"YOU ARE GOING to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You'll own it all." According to legend, Secretary of State Colin Powell offered that pithy thought to George W. Bush in 2002 as they contemplated invading Iraq. As The Washington Post's Bob Woodward later wrote: "Powell...called this the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it."
Setting aside the wildly problematic idea of "owning" 25 million people, subsequent events in the region have demonstrated that Powell was onto something. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the post-9/11 invasions were followed by yearslong slogs. The citizens of both countries have been made meaningfully worse off by ongoing American military meddling--assuming they survived at all.
We don't "own" the people in the nations we have upended, but it's worth asking what we owe them.
What if the best way to discharge our debt to the victims of our foreign policy is to offer them a chance to get out and start over? The idea is not without precedent in American immigration policy.
The most modest form of this is the special rule that allows civilians who might be persecuted for assisting U.S. armed forces abroad to seek refuge here. That process is cumbersome and frequently requires high-level intervention, as Joe Coon described in our November 2017 issue, recounting his efforts to get his Iraqi interpreter out of the country. But it is an option. And its very existence shows that our lawmakers already implicitly acknowledge the moral obligations we're incurring with our foreign adventurism.
On a larger scale, we can look to the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975, a response to the chaos in Southeast Asia as the Vietnam War wound down. In the immediate aftermath of the war's end, more than 130,000 Vietnamese who had worked with American or South Vietnamese forces were evacuated to the United States. But the region continued to fall apart after that, resulting in the eventual resettlement of hundreds of thousands of "boat people" and others in the U.S. throughout the 1980s.
Unsurprisingly, this effort was controversial. It left many in refugee-camp limbo, sometimes for years. But again, underpinning the effort was the recognition that the U.S. had in some sense broken Vietnam--and had made the lives of those who collaborated with U.S. forces there especially untenable.
This treatment stands in contrast to Washington's more recent relations...