Time for a Reality Check in Iraq

The foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the Security Council met in Geneva, and unsurprisingly, did not come to agreement over the future of Iraq. But the sound of silence is often significant in diplomacy. There was little of the name-calling and public vituperation that marked such negotiations over the war last year, nor were there any peremptory demands from Washington for an immediate vote and resolution.

Contrary to appearances, significant efforts are underway behind the scenes to find a workable compromise -- a solution that will help get the Americans out of the hole they have dug for themselves, without pulling the UN and the rest of the world into the sinkhole with them. George W. Bush will address the UN General Assembly on Sept. 23. While there is some pressure inside the administration to get a Security Council resolution first, the consensus is that his speech will be aimed at the opposition, to soften up the ground for a favorable vote.

But the real opposition is in Washington, where some of the hardliners are still seething over the decision to go back to the UN. The prospects for a workable solution for Iraq depend as much on how the debate inside the administration is resolved as they do on negotiations within the UN.

Ideologues have a difficult time grappling with reality. It is often complicated, requires compromise, and entails making difficult choices. Given the current state of affairs in Iraq, there are no easy or perfect solutions. As the apocryphal lost traveler in the West of Ireland was told, “If I was you, I wouldn’t start from here!” So while the U.S. should not have gone into Iraq, its invasion has created a different reality that requires a pragmatic rather than an ideological strategy.

For weeks, the Bush administration was holding out for a Security Council mandate to legitimize the U.S. occupation -- a wildly optimistic expectation that reflected its alarming disconnect from reality. Donald Rumsfeld was fondly indulging his fantasy of tens of thousands of Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi troops under U.S. command, but enlisted by a UN resolution. By recruiting native foot-soldiers of the former British Raj to replace American GIs, Rumsfeld hoped to preserve his reputation, which he had staked on the effectiveness of a relatively small U.S. force to both invade and occupy Iraq.

At the Geneva summit and in talks in New York, there were reassuring signs that the Bush administration may be ready to relinquish such neoconservative fantasies. It is in no one's interests, including the long-suffering Iraqis, for the country to disintegrate into chaos. The reality check which compelled the Bush administration to return to the UN has also pushed the French, Russians and Germans a long way toward a compromise. The French and Russians (much mollified by a hint of continuing contracts for TotalFinaElf and Lukoil) are pursuing a reasonable course that will give everyone -- except the die-hard hawks in the Bush administration -- what they want. It's the same type of pragmatism that impelled the Arab League to abandon its own version of political puritanism and give qualified recognition to the Iraqi Governing Council.

The most effective solution would be the institution of some form of UN surveillance and monitoring of the political transition, accompanied by a U.S.- or NATO-led military operation. No one who remembers the tendency of UN peacekeepers to surrender at the first militia road block -- be it in Cambodia, Bosnia or Sierra Leone -- could seriously expect the UN to ensure security in Iraq. The bloodthirsty militias operating are armed well-enough. We don't need to add the arms of UN peacekeepers to their arsenal. Military security is simply not the organization's métier.

While U.S. troops should not be pulled out immediately, they should indeed be taken off the streets. Far too many Iraqis have been found guilty of “Driving While Arab,” and executed for their sins. While giving U.S. soldiers a UN mandate and reinforcing them with international troops will make them less of a target, the U.S. military in turn must cease acting like an occupying army with imperial privileges. Washington has to swallow hard and accept an end to the occupation in a political sense.

To earn the UN imprimatur, the United States has to set a speedy deadline to hand over political control to the United Nations, along with a clear timeline for Iraqi independence. It is time to bid a fond farewell to its grand schemes for long-term military bases, pipelines to Israel or selling the shop at bargain basement prices to Halliburton and Bechtel. So far, the U.S. and British occupation has not even taken the step of appointing the international supervisors who were to act as a multilateral figleaf on American control of the Iraq Development Fund into which the oil money is supposed to flow.

There are other tests of sincerity. An easy one would be allow in the UN weapons inspectors -- even though the same administration cited Saddam’s alleged lack of cooperation with the UN as its official cause for war. An interesting minor "test" to watch for will be an impending decision on cell-phone contracts. Will they go to companies using the American system, which is incompatible with the rest of the world, and more especially with Iraq's neighboring countries?

In the end, the ultimate test of sincerity is to hand over the reconstruction effort to the UN, which has the required expertise to head the civil and economic rebuilding of Iraq and legitimize any transition regime. There are perfectly good precedents for UN involvement in Iraq. In the case of Kosovo, NATO officially controlled the military operations, while the UN took care of civilian affairs.

To be sure, a UN-run reconstruction effort has its drawbacks -- often ignored in inflated representations of its past efforts. Both Kosovo and East Timor locals complained of a neocolonial streak in the UN occupation, often with more than a little justification. However, in both places, there were no indigenous government institutions in place since they were ruled by Yugoslavia and Indonesia respectively as colonial outposts. UN employees were forced to take over their role. An Iraqi administration, however, can be largely made up of Iraqis themselves. There are millions of public employees who are more than eager to return to work. The UN’s role should be supervise the administration and set the pace for constitutional reform and elections and control the checkbook.

No one should be surprised that the collapse of the all-controlling Ba’athist state has led to privatization of murder and mayhem on a massive scale. But there is no way that a foreign army, however large or lethally equipped, can bring it under control. A genuine United Nations mandate accompanied by a genuine U.S. commitment to cede political control may do the trick. And there is every reason, apart from faith-based ideology and neo-imperial arrogance, to take up the option.

Any government brought into being by the United States will be treated as a political stooge to be replaced at the earliest nationalist coup. A Security Council rubber stamp of the occupation and even of the Iraqi Governing Council would suffer from the same fate. The United Nations needs a visible, hands-on role in the process without becoming a mere accoutrement of a U.S. occupation.

Of course, it may hurt some in the administration to actually live up to its claims of altruism, but domestic political reality demands no less. The costs of continuing the occupation in its present form goes beyond billions of dollars of deficit and even further than the body bags and planeloads of amputees landing at Andrews Air force base. In the end, this war may extract from the White House the greatest price of all: the 2004 presidential election.

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