War Stories

United Nations in Iraq

The only way to save face in Baghdad.

Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Baghdad, said Thursday that he hopes to hold elections next year and that he’s asked a U.N. expert to come advise him on how to set up voter registration. While he’s at it, he should ask a few more U.N. experts to come advise him how to do peacekeeping.

It is becoming increasingly clear that, at some point, the United Nations will have to take over the postwar reconstruction of Iraq. The only question is whether Kofi Annan ends up rushing in on his own terms to fill the gaps of a desperately overwhelmed American occupation force—or whether President Bush comes to his senses, realizes that the task is much harder than his advisers had predicted, and admits that he can’t manage it by himself. If he reaches this conclusion in six months or a year, it will look like a mortifying retreat; if he does so much sooner, like now, he might still be able to look courageous and wise.

The chance of such a swift switch is remote. Secretary of State Colin Powell, meeting Wednesday with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, acknowledged that some nations “have expressed the desire for more of a mandate from the United Nations” and added, “I am in conversation with some ministers about this.” But Powell is famously out of synch with the rest of this administration on the question of unilateralism versus multilateralism. And, notice, even he owned up to being merely “in conversation” with “some ministers,” as opposed, say, to arranging action with pertinent U.N. agencies.

The problem is not merely that India has refused to honor Bush’s request for 17,000 peacekeeping troops unless the operation is put under U.N. auspices, or that France and Germany made similar refusals (no doubt with barely straight-faced schadenfreude). Nor is it that the “coalition” has failed to muster more than a handful of nations to send more than a few hundred troops on a mission that is straining the powers of 148,000 top-notch American soldiers.

These much-noted embarrassments are but symptoms—logical corollaries—of the underlying problem, which is that Bush and his top advisers deluded themselves into presuming, against all historical precedent, that they could rebuild Iraq on their own in the first place.

One of the year’s saddest official documents is the U.S. Agency for International Development’s “Vision for Post-Conflict Iraq,” a 13-page internal policy memo, dated Feb. 19, 2003 (leaked a few weeks later to the Wall Street Journal), that, read in retrospect, exposes the administration’s full naiveté. In addition to the fine-tuned calculations of what percentage of electricity, water, health care, and other amenities will be restored within a few days, 60 days, and six months after the war ends, the memo contains this poignant decree: “The national government will be limited to assume national functions, such as defense and security, monetary and fiscal matters, justice, foreign affairs, and strategic interests such as oil and gas,” while local assemblies will handle all other matters “in an open, transparent and accountable manner.”

Should we laugh or cry at this noble plan to mate Jefferson with Hamilton on the democratic breeding grounds of the New Mesopotamia? The remarkable thing about the passage is that not a single noun or adjective turns out to have any bearing on the current reality. “National government,” “defense,” “security,” “fiscal matters,” “justice,” “foreign affairs”—these concepts simply don’t exist.

Another presumption going into the war was that, by this time, U.S. troop levels in Iraq would have been cut to 50,000. (The fighting would be over, and President Chalabi’s militia fighters, transformed into the new Iraqi army, would have mopped up the remaining pockets of resistance.) This notion underlay the Pentagon’s initial forecast that the monthly cost of occupation would now be $2 billion instead of, as it turns out, $3.9 billion.

The assumptions of America’s postwar policy have crumbled, so it should be no surprise that the policy is on the verge of crumbling, too. Leaving is not a real option; it would be a hideous thing—politically, strategically, and morally—to wreck a nation, install an interim “governing council,” then split.

But staying, at least under the current arrangement, isn’t much of an option either. We can’t afford its price, in money or lives. The longer the United States remains the dominant face of armed authority, the more the Iraqis will associate us with the continuing chaos, and thus the greater the chance that, once they do form their own government, anti-Americanism will be the thickest of threads that hold it together.

A group of think-tank chiefs recently toured Iraq at the request of Bremer and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Their report, released yesterday, found that, while “the United States needs to be prepared to stay the course in Iraq for several years,” it is in no shape to do so. The administrative authority in Baghdad “lacks the personnel, money and flexibility to be fully effective,” and its officials are, by their own admission, “isolated and cut off from Iraqis.”

Therefore, the report concludes, the United States “should reach out broadly to other countries,” not only “to fill its staffing needs,” but to form “a new coalition that involves various international actors, including from countries and organizations that took no part in the original war coalition.”

Though the report doesn’t venture into this realm, Bush will have to take some painful steps. The United States can no longer run the show; it’s time to start sharing the decision-making powers. The United Nations seems the most logical forum, since it has experience with peacekeeping and postwar reconstruction; but if this medicine is too bitter, then a U.N. mandate and teams of advisers for some makeshift “new coalition”—perhaps involving members of NATO and the Arab League—is conceivable.

Yet other countries—substantial countries with large armies and hard currency—will only send troops if Bush gives them incentives to do so. Surely he and Dick Cheney, proud capitalists both, understand the role of capital in international relations. All the contracts for Iraqi development cannot keep going to Bechtel and Halliburton. German, Russian, and yes, even French firms must get a piece of the action. (French officials have been blatant about this aspect of their requirements, but that doesn’t make satisfying them any less necessary.) It will not be pleasant to let the French profit while the House cafeteria still has freedom fries on its menu. But to refuse them a share of postwar revenue in exchange for sharing postwar risks would not only doom our own interests in the region, it would also convince conspiracy theorists everywhere—those who think Bush went to war for oil, contracts, and the pursuit of global conquest—that their cynicism was justified.