U.S. Iraq policy needs an emergency lobotomy

Posted in Iraq | 01-Sep-03 | Author: Thomas Friedman| Source: International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON - No one can say with certainty who was behind the bombings at the UN headquarters in Baghdad and the Shiite holy place in An Najaf, but here is what you can say about them: They are incredibly sick and incredibly smart.

With one bomb at the UN office, they sent a warning to every country that is considering joining the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq: Even the United Nations is not safe here, so your troops surely won't be. They also stoked finger-pointing within the Western alliance.

And with the bomb Friday in An Najaf, they may have threatened the most pleasant surprise about post-Saddam Hussein Iraq: the absence of bloodletting between the three main ethnic groups - Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. After the An Najaf bombing, Shiites started blaming Sunnis, and Shiites started blaming each other. If you think we Americans don't have enough troops in Iraq now - which we don't - wait and see if the factions there start going at each other.

Washington would have to bring back the draft to deploy enough troops to separate the parties. In short, we are at a dangerous moment in Iraq. We cannot let sectarian violence explode. We cannot go on trying to do this on the cheap. And we cannot succeed without more Iraqi and allied input.

But the White House and Pentagon have been proceeding as if it's business as usual. It is no wonder that some of the people closest to what is happening are no longer sitting quiet. Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, told reporters last week that the United States would consider a new UN resolution that would put U.S. forces in Iraq under UN authority - which is the precondition for key allies to send troops. And L. Paul Bremer 3rd, who oversees Iraq's reconstruction, told The Washington Post that it was going to cost "several tens of billions" to rebuild Iraq. Both men were telling the American people truths that should have come from the White House.

Our Iraq strategy needs an emergency policy lobotomy. President George W. Bush needs to shift to a more UN-friendly approach, with more emphasis on the Iraqi Army - the only force that can effectively protect religious sites in Iraq and separate the parties - and with more input from Secretary of State Colin Powell and less from the "we know everything and everyone else is stupid" civilian team running the Pentagon.

There is no question that we would benefit from a new UN mandate that puts U.S. forces in Iraq under a stronger UN umbrella. It would buy us and our Iraqi allies more legitimacy, as well as help. Legitimacy buys needed time.

"Other nations are prepared to help, but they do not want to join what is perceived as an American 'occupation,'" Secretary General Kofi Annan told me. "If the forces in Iraq are put under a UN mandate, they can still be commanded by an American, like in Bosnia, but it will be perceived differently and provide the legitimacy for others to join."

But this will not be a cure-all. Countries are not exactly lining up to send their troops into harm's way in Iraq. So, the only way we get a big troop increase quickly is for the Pentagon to reverse its awful decision to disband (and unemploy) the Iraqi Army - most of whom refused to fight for Saddam in the first place. We should be going to Iraqi colonels and offering to pay them to rebuild their units. They can prune out the bad guys.

Also, the hard part of any new UNmandate will be what to do with Bremer, who, up to now, has done a tough job well. No serious allies are going to send forces to Iraq just to be under U.S. military command. They will demand a voice in shaping the political future of Iraq, which is right now the exclusive role of Bremer, reporting to the Pentagon. If the United Nations is brought into the political rebuilding of Iraq, a way must be found to tightly define its role so that we don't have 15 chefs in the kitchen. Maybe the Iraqi Governing Council should spell out to the United Nations what political role it should play - where it should stop and start.

Americans are starting to worry. They are connecting the dots - the exploding deficit, the absence of allies in Iraq, the soaring costs of the war and the mounting casualties. People want to stop hearing about why winning in Iraq is so important and start seeing a strategy for making it happen at a cost the country can sustain.