Howard Dean, the outspoken former Governor of Vermont, recently observed in a speech in Brussels that when President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, he was quite modest about it and said that he hoped to earn it one day.
The President had said in Oslo in 2009, "Our actions matter and can bend history in the direction of justice."
He then went on to acknowledge that "Compared with some of the giants of history who've received this prize -- Schweitzer and King; Marshall and Mandela -- my accomplishments are slight. And then there are the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice; those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened cynics."
Indeed, Mr. Obama knew then that the honor conferred on him was something he would have to try very hard to live up to.
This coming Monday, 12 December, President Obama will be meeting with Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, in the Oval Office. Mr. Maleki is well used to doing the bidding of his ideological brethren in Iran's theocracy, protesting all the while that he has no choice but to do so. He has opposed Arab pressure on the Syrian dictator, aligned Iraq politically, economically, and increasingly militarily with Iran's regime, and violently suppressed the Iranian mullahs' longtime opposition based in Iraq, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK/PMOI), for good measure. Since 1981, some 120,000 of its members and supporters have been slaughtered.
Twice in the past two years, Mr. Maleki has ordered sectarian forces from Iraq's Shi'ite militias who were trained and supported by Tehran, to enter a peaceful refugee enclave in Iraq, near the Iranian border, to massacre defenseless and unarmed residents.
The residents of Camp Ashraf are educated intellectuals and dissidents who pose a major threat to the tyranny of the regime. They have come to symbolize defiance to the mullahs who wield supreme religious power to subjugate Iranian society. By rejecting the regime in its entirety, promoting gender equality, democracy, and a secular and non-nuclear Iran, the MEK in Asharf present a model to a restive, youthful and dissatisfied population.
The residents disarmed in 2003 to US troops. The U.S. military had the obligation as an occupying force under the Geneva Conventions to protect them and granted them "Protected Persons" status until 2009 when it transferred security of Camp Ashraf to the Iraqis. This has turned out to be akin to handing over the chicken coop to the fox. The US, arguably, still carries responsibility for this refugee population under international law.
The Iraqi government claims that it is its sovereign right to close Camp Ashraf and has set a potentially lethal deadline of 31 December. It has rehearsed for such a 'closure' with American weapons systems that the US has given Iraq, in violent incursions into the camp leading to the death of over 40 unarmed residents including 8 women.
The European Union and the United Nations have called on Iraq to respect the rights of the asylum seekers in Ashraf, and their choice to be transferred to third countries. Mr. Maleki, however, has maneuvered to obstruct the UNHCR from going forward with its refugee verification process so as to prevent the Ashraf residents from receiving any international security assistance. He is instead proposing to disperse the residents, against their will, in small groups to unknown and vulnerable locations throughout Iraq, setting the stage for their forced disappearance and murder.
The meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office is taking place against this macabre setting. Mr. Obama will have to decide whether he wants to be remembered as the Nobel Peace Prize winner who shook the hands of a perpetrator of crimes against humanity, or if he will take action to "bend history in the direction of justice."
Mr. Obama needs to show leadership and tell Mr. Maleki that the United States will not tolerate any forcible relocation of Ashraf residents and that Mr. Maleki must respect UN requests for cancellation of the wholly impossible deadline of 31 December so that the UNHCR can process the 3,400 residents in Ashraf.
Mr. Obama can also begin by removing a major obstacle for a peaceful resolution to the Camp Ashraf crisis. Given the politically motivated designation of the MEK/PMOI as a Foreign Terrorist Organization back in 1997 when the US hoped for an opening with Tehran over its nuclear weapons development, it would be almost impossible for Mr. Obama to sound serious to Mr. Maleki while such an unjust designation stands. Britain and the EU were ordered by the courts to de-proscribe them in 2008 and 2009.
The designation stigmatizes the Camp Ashraf residents, provides a convenient excuse for Mr. Maleki to massacre them openly as he implied in an opinion piece in The Washington Post on December 5th, obstructs their resettlement to third countries, and bestows on the United States the dubious honor of being in concert with Iran's tyranny in considering the MEK as terrorist.
As Elizabeth Ferris, Co-Director of the Brookings Institution's LSE Project on Internal Displacement, recently said in a Congressional hearing, "The US role is key. If the US is unwilling or unable to accept cases [of Ashraf residents] for resettlement, then other countries will find it difficult or impossible to accept them."
So it is up to President Obama to order the State Department to immediately comply with a US Federal Court of Appeals ruling in June 2010 that like other courts in Europe found no evidence for the terrorist designation of the MEK and called for the Secretary of State to reconsider the designation, seriously implying that she should revoke it.
In 2009, in the aftermath of Iran's sham election of Ahmadinejad, the Iranian people famously chanted, "Obama, are you with them or with us." Unfortunately, that turned out to be a grievous missed opportunity to support the Iranian people's movement for democracy. Perhaps President Obama can now seize the moment to change history for the good and avoid another Srebrenica under his watch to earn the Peace Prize that was granted him.