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From the December 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 12)

Iraq and the United Nations

The Way out of Hell

Simeon Vassilev, Banker (independent business weekly), Sofia, Bulgaria, Sept. 20-26, 2003

An Iraqi boy looks through the gates of a police station in Ouja, in northern Iraq
A man peers through the gates of the police station in Ouja, 10 miles from Saddam Hussein's birthplace in Tikrit, Nov. 1, 2003 (Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP-Getty Images).
“The U.N. was not created to take humanity to heaven but to save it from hell.” The phrase belongs to former United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold. It was uttered in different times, but to a large extent nowadays, reality presents ample evidence of the veracity of Hammarskjold’s statement. The U.N. remains the integral part of the international system that is called upon to pull the world from the quagmire of conflicts. The question now is whether the U.N. is capable of doing this.

It is obvious that without the postwar diplomacy of the U.N., the political and economic knot around Iraq will remain tightly tangled. The U.S. administration has taken belated but important steps forward according to the formula “international U.N. forces under the military command of the United States.” The formula hides many details about the distribution of power in Iraq, details that are making hell of diplomats’ lives.

And yet something has been offered that could alter the sad sight of postwar Iraq. The United States is now much more interested in garnering international support—at the very least because of the US$150 billion in annual expenses needed for stabilizing Iraq.

And it was precisely at this point, under the staring eyes fixed at the U.N., at the opening ceremony of the 58th session of the General Assembly, that Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke in an unusually frank manner. He said that the U.N. was not interested in sending “blue helmets” [U.N. peacekeepers], nor did it have the capacity to take up the governance and safeguard the security of Iraq. The Security Council, Annan argued, should commit itself only to steps associated with strengthening the Iraqi political system. His statement could not be interpreted as anything but a most refined presentation of the difference between the potential of the blue helmets and the “diplomatic top hats.”

Until now, Annan has not made a more clear-cut statement regarding postwar Iraq. In a sense, this statement reflected an eroding confidence regarding the diplomatic possibilities for improving the situation in that country. It even created the impression that inadequate thought was given to the need to motivate the Americans and Europeans to overcome their recent disputes. And where can such disputes be overcome but at the perfect place—the diplomatic parquet floor of the U.N.?

The Annan statement, however, was a true reflection of reality. For it would be too naive to overrate the U.N.’s potential and equally naive not to take into account the actual state of the  balance of power in international relations. Meanwhile, it would be similarly naive to envision problem-solving patterns of the American kind.

As analysts have correctly observed, the U.N. might still have been bogged down right now in negotiating the arms inspectors’ access with Saddam Hussein, and a discussion devoted to the future constitution of Iraq would have been out of the question. In fact, as a skilled diplomat, Annan has put his finger on the sore point. There is neither a purely American nor a purely European option in the settlement of the Iraq problem, nor can the U.N. be viewed as “the ivory tower of diplomacy.” Countries that have  abandoned the normal tone of communication will now be forced by circumstances not only to return to the normal discourse but to become more active.

It seems that this new “diplomatic awareness” and this “renewed activity” are beginning to happen and will most probably take shape during the 58th session of the General Assembly, which is entirely devoted to Iraq. There the leaders will make speeches, will have to rub shoulders, and will be compelled to look at the past in a more cold-blooded fashion and at the future with greater good will. America has already made an offer to which Europe must respond. A new edition of the U.S.-European discourse is in the making, and it will certainly not end with the adoption of the U.N. resolution on Iraq; it will be a continuing process.

It has been a long time since French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have gotten together in one place. They did it in Berlin—for the first time after the end of the Iraq war and three days before the big debate at the U.N. General Assembly. All three states are members of the Security Council. This fact transformed the trilateral summit into the most serious signal that Europe was stirring into action since the United States had begun its “U.N. comeback” and asked for assistance in Iraq’s postwar reconstruction.

“The meeting will serve to achieve  a common position on foreign policy following the differences that surfaced before the war,” the German government stated prior to the get-together. This declaration sounded quite optimistic, given that France and Germany had been resolutely opposed to military intervention and had a different notion than the United States of how a postwar Iraq should look. Britain had stood firmly behind the United States.

However the results of this meeting are interpreted, the fact that it took place for the first time after the war in Iraq speaks for itself. It is evident that the desired effect was not so much to work out a common position by Paris, Berlin, and London as to find the things that Paris and Berlin, on the one hand, and Washington, on the other, might have in common.

Blair is on his most important diplomatic mission, because he is becoming the point of intersection between the axes that have emerged before and during the war. This mission, which is far from over after the Berlin meeting, carries a strong domestic political charge for Blair. If relations among Paris, Berlin, and Washington improve, this would certainly help to prop up his shaken authority in the United Kingdom and relieve the domestic political pressure on him.

Schröder, too, tries to dispel the impression about the existence of a Berlin-Paris axis, which would be aimed against Washington. Shortly before the Berlin meeting, Schröder even hinted that he was ready to show more flexibility. He offered the United States German assistance in the rehabilitation of Iraq “irrespective of the U.N. resolution.” This, as Schröder stipulated, would include only humanitarian aid and support of “particular projects.” Nevertheless, the chancellor’s gesture was a powerful move on Germany’s part. Just a week earlier, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer had insisted that Germany would participate in the reconstruction of Iraq only if the leading role was to be assigned to the U.N.

We are apparently witnessing a willingness by Germany to make concessions, which cannot but signal that this greater flexibility has been coordinated with Paris. France demanded recently that the United States transfer power to a provisional Iraqi government within a month. The United States flatly rejected the demand.

Later on, however, the French ambassador to Washington, Jean-David Levitte, said in a TV interview that the transfer of power, or initially of political responsibility, should be carried out “in a symbolic fashion.” “France is ready to help the United States and Great Britain in finding a solution to the Iraq problem, which is of vital importance not merely to the people of Iraq but to relations in general between the Muslim world and Western countries,” Levitte stressed.

Rome and Madrid were hardly enthusiastic about the trilateral meeting in Berlin, although it was billed as “informal.” This was not the first time that Spain and Italy found themselves excluded from such summits. How uncomfortable Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi must have felt, presiding over the European Union and nurturing long-standing ambitions to play mediator between America and Europe! Berlusconi, on taking up the E.U. rotating presidency, he had announced that one of his priorities would be to work for trans-Atlantic reconciliation.

A couple of months have passed since then, but Berlusconi has failed to convene the “arguing sides” around the same table, a fact that must be giving him headaches. Spain, which alongside Great Britain was a staunch U.S. ally before and during the war, was also ignored, despite the fact that it is currently a nonpermanent member of the Security Council.

The developments in diplomacy related to postwar Iraq provide the answer to the question of why the U.N. is essential and what it is capable of accomplishing. Annan has also answered the question of what the U.N. wants. Now it is the turn of the powers on both sides of the Atlantic to say what exactly they want, what they are capable of, and whether they earnestly desire to win the peace in Iraq.

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