A Growing U.N. Role in Iraq

Posted in Iraq | 27-Feb-04 | Source: The New York Times

President Bush may now better understand why his father, at the end of the first Persian Gulf war, wisely decided not to order victorious American troops to go on to Baghdad. All the fears that persuaded the first Bush administration to exercise restraint are coming back to haunt the current American occupation.

Saddam Hussein was a terrible dictator who caused great misery to his people. Yet it would be no great deliverance for them if Iraq became a splintering nation engulfed in bitter civil wars with a strong possibility of Turkish or Iranian intervention, and it would be a nightmare for the rest of the world. Creating stable and legitimate Iraqi political institutions from scratch is turning out to be a far more daunting, and thankless, task than the Bush administration ever acknowledged. The best — perhaps the only — chance for success depends on the United Nations. Fortunately, the White House is finally showing some signs of reconciling itself to reality.

It is now painfully clear that Washington gave little serious forethought to how a democratic Iraqi government could be nurtured. If the president and his advisers had thought the whole mission through, they would have realized that guiding Iraq from tyranny to tranquillity is not something a Pentagon-directed American occupation could accomplish on its own. It requires, at minimum, a guiding hand that has international legitimacy and the cooperation of a broad range of allies.

Neither of those conditions exists. In their absence, Iraqis are torn between impatience to end foreign military occupation and fear that a panicky American administration might abruptly abandon their country to civil war, anarchy or a new dictatorship. Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders seem far less interested in cobbling together the kind of basic institutions necessary for a future democracy than in maneuvering for advantage at one another's expense. The June 30 deadline set by the election-bound Bush administration for turning over the government to Iraqis looks increasingly dubious. Meanwhile, countries like India, Pakistan and France remain unwilling to contribute badly needed peacekeeping troops before a stable, internationally recognized Iraqi government emerges.

At this vital juncture, the United Nations has suddenly stepped to the center of the stage. Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations official who helped guide Afghanistan's political reconstruction, has returned from a fact-finding mission to Iraq and reported to Secretary General Kofi Annan. Based on his findings, Mr. Annan has reaffirmed his view that not enough time remains to organize direct nationwide elections in Iraq before the scheduled installation of an interim Iraqi government by June 30.

That was what Washington wanted to hear; demands from Shiite leaders for hastily scheduled direct elections were unrealistic given the lack of preparation for democracy, but they were hard to resist without the backing of the United Nations. The core issue, however, remains unresolved. Handing power to an unelected government could exacerbate internal tensions in Iraq and discourage other nations from recognizing the new Iraqi authorities as legitimate. That makes it essential that major Iraqi power centers come to some agreement on an adequately representative method for choosing the interim government. No major part of the Iraqi population — Shiite, Sunni or Kurdish — can be left feeling disenfranchised. Mr. Brahimi will be central to that process and could return to Iraq next month to try to thrash out an acceptable formula.

It is breathtaking, but heartening, to see the administration, after months of reviling the United Nations and trying to marginalize it, now turn to Mr. Annan and Mr. Brahimi to try to rescue its imperiled transition timetable. Parallel efforts are quietly under way to assuage the feelings of major European allies Washington dismissed and insulted a year ago, but now badly needs. We hope this represents a unified administration policy and will not be undermined by ideologues in the Pentagon or Vice President Dick Cheney's office.

Obviously it would have been better not to have rushed into invading and occupying Iraq on the basis of flawed intelligence and against the advice of major allies. But that is now history. The task now is to make the best of the current reality. Much of Europe now fears that a botched transition in Iraq could create a black hole of violence and terrorism painfully close to Europe's frontiers. That is a fear the current Bush administration appears to be fully comprehending for the first time.