Saving the Iraqi Children

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New york Times

November 27, 2004

Iraqis are paying a horrendous price for the good intentions of well-meaning conservatives who wanted to liberate them. And now some well-meaning American liberals are seeking a troop withdrawal that would make matters even worse.

Heaven protect Iraq from well-meaning Americans.

Lately, I've been quiet about the war because it's easy to rail about the administration's foolishness last year but a lot harder to offer constructive suggestions for what we should do now. President Bush's policy on Iraq has migrated from delusional - we would be welcomed with flowers, we should disband the Iraqi army, security is fine, the big problem is exaggerations by nervous Nellie correspondents - to reasonable today. These days, the biggest risk may come from the small but growing contingent on the left that wants to bring our troops home now.

Consider two recent reports.

First, The Lancet, the London-based medical journal, published a study suggesting that at least 100,000 Iraqis, and perhaps many more, had died as a result of the invasion of Iraq. Among Iraqis, the risk of death by violence was 58 times greater after the war than before, and infant mortality also nearly doubled.

That's apparently because of insecurity. A doctor in Basra told me last year how physicians and patients alike had had to run for cover when bandits attacked the infectious diseases unit, firing machine guns and throwing hand grenades, so they could steal the air-conditioners. Given those conditions, women are now more likely to give birth at home, so babies and mothers are both more likely to die of "natural" causes.

The second troubling report, in The Washington Post, recounted that acute malnutrition among children under 5 soared to 7.7 percent this year from 4 percent before the war. Those are preliminary figures, but they suggest that 400,000 Iraqi children are badly malnourished, and suffering in some cases from irreversible physical and mental stunting.

Those glimpses at the public health situation in Iraq are a reminder not only of the disastrous impact of our invasion, but also of the humanitarian impact if we pull out our troops prematurely.

If U.S. troops leave Iraq too soon, the country will simply fall apart. The Kurdish areas in the north may muddle along, unless Turkey intervenes to protect the Turkman minority or to block the emergence of a Kurdish state. The Shiite areas in the south might establish an Iranian-backed theocratic statelet that would establish order. But the middle of the country would erupt in bloody civil war and turn into something like Somalia.

What would that mean? If Iraq were to sink to Somalia-level child mortality rates, one result by my calculation would be 203,000 children dying each year. If Iraq were to have maternal mortality rates as bad as Somalia's, that would be 9,900 Iraqi women dying each year in childbirth.

Granted, my argument for staying the course is a difficult one to make to American parents whose immediate concerns are the lives of their own children. There is no getting around the fact that if we stay, more Americans will die, and this burden will fall inequitably on working-class families and members of minority groups.

I also have to concede that those calling for withdrawal may in the end be proven right: perhaps we'll stick it out in Iraq and still be forced to retreat even after squandering the lives of 1,000 more Americans. Those of us who believe in remaining in Iraq must answer the question that John Kerry asked about Vietnam: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

The best answer to that question, I think, is that our mistaken invasion has left millions of Iraqis desperately vulnerable, and it would be inhumane to abandon them now. If we stay in Iraq, there is still some hope that Iraqis will come to enjoy security and better lives, but if we pull out we will be condemning Iraqis to anarchy, terrorism and starvation, costing the lives of hundreds of thousands of children over the next decade.

Those hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, whose lives we placed at risk by invading their country, are the reasons we should remain in Iraq, until we can hand over security to a local force. Saving hundreds of thousands of lives is a worthy cause to risk American lives for, even to die for.