Helpers or Invaders?

One primary characteristic of terrorism that sets it apart from ordinary warfare is its refusal to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. To someone like the anonymous person or persons who drove a truck loaded with explosives into the Baghdad headquarters of the United Nations, there are only enemies. The deadly act recalls the promise of Osama bin Laden that was widely quoted at the time of the 9/11 attacks on the United States -- "We will kill your innocents."

It also appears to have exacerbated the simmering tension between the United Nations and the United States, and most important, it threatens to blur lines between peacekeeping and war-making.

There was an unmistakable note of criticism to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's remarks after the attack, when he said that he had hoped that the coalition forces "would have secured the environment" by now so that U.N. agencies could carry on their work of "economic reconstruction and institution building."

Annan's statement implied that there is a clear distinction to be made, in the work of nation building, between the warlike efforts of occupation forces and the peaceful efforts of aid and reconstruction agencies. How clear that distinction is in the minds of the Iraqi people in their country's present state of disorganization and discord is impossible to know. Certainly it was not clear in the mind of those who planned and executed the attack on the U.N. compound in the Canal Hotel.

The attack casts a dark shadow over the future of reconstruction work in Iraq, and it is intensifying the debate about how many troops are needed to maintain security. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld continues to insist that present force levels are adequate, but meanwhile the Bush administration is renewing efforts to get other U.N. member nations to send troops.

The reconstruction work by organizations other than the United States is not about to end, and will probably accelerate. Kofi Annan vowed after the attack that the United Nations would "not be intimidated" and that its work would go forward.

Furthermore, the European Union is planning to expand its own reconstruction role in Iraq, with a significant infusion of funds and a program focusing on "institution building" and training police and civil servants. This, a European policy analyst pointedly noted, is an area where the Europeans have "a comparative advantage over the Americans" as a result of their involvement in Eastern Europe.

The Europeans are also looking at the possibility of setting up a trust fund for Iraq. But one official, quoted in the online publication European Voice, made it clear that the EU was not going to do anything to "finance the occupation" -- the peace-work vs. war-work distinction again.

This sentiment -- the unwillingness to do anything that might appear to be supporting the American invasion of Iraq in the first place -- promises to be a continuing source of resistance to sending troops. The trouble is, peaceful work is best done under relatively peaceful conditions. Nation-building is generally understood to be something that happens after the end of hostilities. It also helps if the peace-workers are recognized and treated as such.

So, if aid workers in Iraq are not safe, should the U.S. military presence be extended to protect them? Some American military experts think we need many more troops there, perhaps hundreds of thousands more. Others believe that the U.S. presence only contributes to the threat, by being a focus of so much Iraqi animosity. This was the issue in another U.N.-U.S. argument. Before the bombing, the United Nations had asked for more protection around the Canal Hotel. Washington had refused, on the grounds that its visible presence would only increase the danger of some kind of attack on the hotel.

All this -- the squabbling, the uncertainty, the fear -- appear to be intensifying.

So from one point of view the bombing has been a great success, has done everything that could be asked of an act of terrorism. It has killed innocents. It has heightened discord. It has created a mood of terror. And it has made it clear that nobody -- not even the people carrying out aid work on behalf of the United Nations, the organization that in more optimistic times was described as mankind's best hope for peace -- will be able to stand safely above the fray.

Walter Truett Anderson is an associate editor of Pacific News Service, a political scientist and author of "All Connected Now: Life in the First Global Civilization" (Westview Press, 2001), recently released in paperback.

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