The Way out of Iraq

A Supporting Role in the Peace

Fifteen hands went up at the United Nations Security Council yesterday, but unanimous approval of Resolution 1511 on Iraq was really a game of diplomatic three-card monte.

The astonishing yea vote from Syria notwithstanding, a trio of obstructive countries—France, Germany, and Russia—remains profoundly opposed to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and, by extension, the reconstruction efforts in that beggared nation. Turning over their diplomatic cards reveals the emptiness of yesterday’s gesture—no troops, no money, but definitely the Gang of Three wants a piece of the potential reconstruction contracts, worth up to US$87 billion.

The Americans have 139,000 pairs of boots on the ground in Iraq and, once the Bush administration gets congressional approval of its Iraq/Afghanistan budget, will pump $150 billion into Iraq next year alone, covering military costs and critical reconstruction projects. Of course, the United States is paying for its mission in Iraq in far graver ways—one American soldier killed, on average, every 1.75 days since May 1.

No other country is paying such a dear price. Thus no other country—either individually or via the U.N.—can expect to set the agenda in Iraq, any more than military command and authority can be wrenched away from Washington. This is what the French, the Germans, and the Russians refuse to accept and why their support of the redrafted resolution is essentially symbolic, although symbolism does have its merit.

A month ago, the French revealed they’d drawn up plans to send 10,000 troops to Iraq. This, too, was largely a symbolic revelation. France, with a substantial army, is nevertheless stretched thin already, with troops in Congo, the Ivory Coast, and the Balkans. More to the point, France would only consider contributing troops for an international military force under U.N. authority, an authority extending also to a provisional Iraqi government.

Washington would love for a made-in-Iraq provisional government to take over from the U.S. civilian administration led by L. Paul Bremer. But the situation on the ground—the continuing dangers, the bombing attacks, the lack of security, all the scary elements emphasized by failure-mongers—makes it impossible to move swiftly to Iraqi civilian rule. Indeed, a majority of Iraqis, according to recent Gallup polls, don’t want the Americans to bug out, not yet.

The U.N. has recognized this central reality. Yesterday’s resolution authorizes a multinational military force in Iraq under a unified command led by the United States, calls for troop contributions and “substantial” financial pledges from its 191 member states, and asks only that a hand-over timetable be filed by Dec. 15—basically, a date for future dates. Returning sovereignty to Iraqis will occur only when it’s practical, and who knows when that might be?

Yesterday’s vote must be viewed as a victory for Washington, even if it results in no further international troops. Even rosy predictions had estimated that no more than 30,000 troops would be offered up for Iraq duty. And Turkey came on board a week ago, with the government announcing (this has yet to be formally endorsed by legislators) it would send 10,000 troops into neighboring Iraq, a brave decision fraught with risks. Turkey is the only Muslim-majority nation in NATO, but Iraqis are leery of  Turks, as a former occupying power in the Ottoman Empire era and, more recently, a meddling influence in the north, long covetous of Iraqi oil fields.

The Americans expect to train 12,000 Iraqi soldiers by the end of this year, the basis of a new and resurrected Iraq military. The goal is 40,000 troops by the end of 2004. For its part, the U.N. is already moving toward hiring 250,000 Iraqis for repair and reconstruction projects. Iraqi police are graduating weekly. Iraq’s 25-member Governing Council, an interim quasi-government, is moving toward writing a new constitution, a first step in holding even local elections.

But burden-sharing remains essential in speeding up the process, which is ostensibly what the French, the Germans, and the Russians most want. Which is why it will be politically difficult, quite hypocritical, for those countries to now remain aloof from the process.

They didn’t want any part of the war. Fine. But they have little excuse now for taking no part in the peace.

In fact, the U.N. resolution leaves little wiggle-room for ostensibly peace-loving, multinationalism-besotted nations (hello, Canada) to decline a burden-humping role in Iraq. There’s more than enough feel-good, low-risk work to go around in the areas of rebuilding civilian institutions, supporting transitional justice efforts, promoting human rights, and generally helping Iraq get off its knees.

This is where the U.N. and its member nations can do something significant and palpably effective, not just to bolster Iraq as a functioning state but to improve the quality of life for ordinary Iraqis.

With the U.N.-administered oil-for-food program phased out, the balance of funds remaining in an escrow account should be shifted over to the Iraq Assistance Fund. Although the occupying powers, as of this moment, are to determine how those oil revenues will be spent, surely this is an area that should at the very least require U.N. consultation.

Of course, as a result of attacks aimed at the U.N., most specifically the horrific bombing of its Baghdad headquarters, the U.N. presence in Iraq has been hugely shrunk, with foreign staff cut from 600 to a mere 35 in August, with scores of projects abandoned.

Perhaps what the U.N. needs most, at the outset, is its own self-protection force, tasked exclusively with defending U.N. personnel and installments. One suggestion already floated is contributing a battalion (15,000 troops) specifically for that purpose, perhaps from Norway, an internationally respected nation and fervent supporter of the U.N. The U.N. is a sluggish and often unwieldy institution with a poor track record in opposing or removing despots. It didn’t have the nerve to implement its own multiple resolutions with respect to bringing Saddam Hussein to heel. It has historically taken the charitable view of tyrants, as if diplomacy can always triumph over brutality and defiance.

But, as the United States has implicitly acknowledged, even a lurching, paralytic U.N. is better than no U.N. at all. It has a role, one that should and now will be expanded in Iraq. The U.N., however, is only as strong as its component parts. Those parts include France, Russia, and Germany. And not just their U.N. ambassadors raising hands to vote a symbolic “yes” in the Security Council.