Let the U.N. Rebuild Iraq

We don’t want to. Let them.

The United States opposes turning the peacetime reconstruction of Iraq over to the United Nations. Instead, we want to do it ourselves. Or do we? Retired Army Gen. Jay Garner lends credence in today’s New York Times to a report in yesterday’s Washington Post that the White House and Pentagon have little appetite for the sort of prolonged presence in Iraq that a successful reconstruction would logically require. America’s post-World War II occupation lasted four years in Germany, seven in Japan. But the Post said that Garner’s aides saw the Iraq occupation lasting “months, not years.” The Times has Garner on the record saying, “I don’t think I would put 90 days as a mark on the wall,” but “we’ll leave fairly rapidly.” (In between was the usual boilerplate about remaining “as long as it takes.”)

Maybe Garner really can turn Iraq into a working democracy so quickly that he won’t lose the deposit on his August beach-house rental. Or maybe Garner is just trying to calm Islamists and Arab nationalists who seethe at the new U.S. presence. But a Pentagon official quoted by the Post mostly sounded impatient with the tedium of nation-building. “The balance is getting out without walking away from our responsibility,” he told the Post’s Jonathan Weisman and Mike Allen, “but resisting what has happened in the past, when foreign forces come in and everyone wants them to stay forever.”

There’s ample reason to believe Bush doesn’t relish the prospect of nurturing civil society abroad. Candidate Bush famously said he didn’t want soldiers or civilians to perform nation-building. (“I mean, we’re going to have kind of a nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not.”) Later, of course, he changed his tune, calling for “a sustained commitment” to rebuild Iraq. Although the contradiction has been flat-out denied by some, more typically one hears that Bush’s current interest in nation-building reflects 9/11’s maturing effect on the president. Another possibility worth exploring, though, is that our once-xenophobic commander in chief affected pious internationalism in order to sell Gulf War II. If Bush sincerely wants to rebuild nations, what explains the halfhearted effort now under way in Afghanistan? And what explains Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s March 27 statement to Congress that“I don’t believe the United States has the responsibility for reconstruction”? Even the military bases lately established in Iraq, Rumsfeld insists, are temporary.

More than anyone else, it was the neoconservatives who championed the Iraq war as an opportunity to bring democracy to the Arab world. But even they lack much appetite for the painstaking effort required. In a March 17 “Statement on Post-War Iraq,” Bill Kristol and various others wrote, “Any early fixation on exit strategies and departure deadlines will undercut American credibility and greatly diminish the prospects for success.” But exit strategies and departure deadlines are precisely what the White House and Pentagon are hankering for. So far, nobody’s squawking about it at the Weekly Standard. (Instead, Kristol and David Brooks are busy celebrating how therapeutic the war was for us.)

Given America’s sincere lack of interest in nurturing a durable and just regime in Iraq—and, let’s not forget, the real burdens and risks inherent in the task—Chatterbox thinks we should hand the job over to the United Nations. True, the United Nations’ track record in this area is fairly weak. But the U.S. track record is pretty weak, too. Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace estimates that out of 18 attempts during the past century, the United States has been able to impose lasting democratic rule in only five instances. All five success stories involved nations—Germany, Japan, Italy, Panama, and Grenada—that were much easier to govern than Iraq, either because of greater homogeneity in their populations or because they were much, much smaller. We could improve the odds by maintaining a decent-size military presence and putting the troops at the United Nations’ disposal. We could also reasonably lay down a few conditions, among them that the United Nations honor promises we’ve made to the Kurds for limited autonomy within greater Iraq.

Handing Iraq over to the United Nations would bring us many tangible benefits. To whatever extent the United Nations wanted to pay off debts accrued by Saddam’s regime, it would now have to cough up the money itself. To whatever extent the United Nations wanted to participate on Iraq’s behalf in OPEC, it could do so without creating legal and political questions about participation in an illegal international cartel. (The United Nations enjoys diplomatic immunity from U.S. antitrust law.) And, of course, we’d be spared the god-awful headache of untangling the U.N.-governed oil-for-food program.

If the results of a U.N.-led rebuilding effort were successful, we would learn that the United Nations can handle being more actively engaged in addressing the world’s problems. If the results were not successful, the United States could avoid blame. The latter is no trivial consideration at a time when anti-Americanism fuels Islamist terrorism. (It’s also, obviously, a strong political selling point to the GOP.) The bottom line, though, is that the Bush administration doesn’t want to perform this task. Why insist on doing it halfheartedly?