Bush to UN: Help!

Doctor Johnson once said that the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight must concentrate the mind of a person wonderfully. The problem with the U.S. occupation of Iraq is that the Bush administration is still unclear as to who is being readied for the noose: the insurgents or the White House.

The good news is that the White House appears to have come up with yet another 'plan' to save its hide: Bring in the United Nations.

After two years of heaping withering scorn on the UN, the Bush administration is hoping that Kofi Annan's special representative Lakhdar Brahimi can pull a rabbit out of the Iraqi hat as he did in Afghanistan -- and, more important, do so before the presidential election in November.

What's more, the White House seems to have given up its previous flight of fancy that previous UN resolutions authorized the creation of a multinational force in Iraq, and is planning to petition the Security Council for a resolution that will actually do so. Initial reports suggest that the resolution will mandate several different kinds of troops, including a special category of troops under direct UN command charged with protecting its staff during the handover -- which will remove a major stumbling block standing in the way of UN participation.

On the face of it, this latest strategy may indeed work. Brahimi, as an Arab representing the United Nations, is well respected by the various Iraqi parties, unlike anyone in the Bush administration either in Washington or in Baghdad. It is possible that he will be able to produce the required compromise solution even before the June 30 deadline for handing over "sovereignty."

The main advantage of bringing in the UN, apart from Brahimi's undisputed diplomatic skills, is that its participation offers legitimacy. It is the only body that can politically detoxify the U.S. occupation by giving its blessing to a new Iraqi administration. Moreover, its entry will symbolize a definitive break with the past, i.e. the rule of both Saddam Hussein and the CPA.

For Brahimi to succeed, however, he has to extract tangible demonstrations of good faith from the United States. And that may well prove to be an impossible task for several reasons. To begin with, at least one half of the Bush administration -- led by the Cheney-Rumsfeld gang -- appears to be working to thwart any genuinely viable solution, especially one that entails UN involvement.

More important, the White House is willing to the hand over "sovereignty" but not power. The administration wants to define "sovereignty" at will. How else can one interpret the order putting the new "Iraqi" Army under the command of a U.S. General after the June 30 handover?

The U.S. was forced to turn to Brahimi precisely because its obstinate refusal to play fair had doomed its own efforts to engineer an exit strategy. For months, the administration has been trying to foist an expanded version of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council on the Iraqis while refusing to hold direct elections. CPA chief Paul Bremer's proposal was to appoint caucuses in various Iraqi districts, which in turn would appoint an interim Iraqi administration. The Iraqis may not have had much experience in democracy, but they can recognize an electoral boondoggle when they saw one and refused to bite.

Then there is the tricky issue of whether the new interim "sovereign" government is bound by agreements the U.S. negotiated previously with the IGC, i.e. itself. Moreover, is the government eventually elected by Iraqis in direct elections bound by the agreements signed by the interim government? To hamstring any elected body in this way is a violation of the principle of democracy, but that is exactly what the United States is insisting upon.

The Pentagon does not plan to relinquish control of the Iraqi budget after June 30, let alone allow much of the incoming money to drift too far from American corporations. U.S. officials are now warning about possible "corruption" within the IGC, an accusation made more ironic given the fact that it is the administration that appointed Ahmed Chalabi, a man wanted for bank fraud in Jordan, as head of the IGC's financial department.

In other words, the entire idea of a "handover" is designed to shuffle off the blame for violence and unrest on the ground in an election year. And their eagerness to do so suggests that the last week's bloody events did not come as a complete surprise to the Bushies.

So in order to succeed, Brahimi has to persuade the Americans to make some serious concessions if indeed they do want a real exit strategy. They must be prepared to leave Iraq if a newly elected government asks them to do so; participate in a truly multinational force rather than insist on a U.S.-led occupation army with foreign auxiliaries. (Of course, the presence of any U.S. troops may soon become unacceptable to Iraqis after the raids on Fallujah and Sadr city.)

Even if Brahimi is able to make the Bush administration face reality, his task is far from complete. His other challenge is to persuade the contending Iraqi factions -- who are all pushing for the June 30 deadline -- to agree to interim arrangements short of an election. He has won some kudos for persuading the Americans to consider elections early next year.

Brahimi also has to broker the issue of the multinational force in order to win the support of the Security Council members, if the U.S. is to get its resolution. As long as the Pentagon insists on retaining command, any multinational force will look like exactly what the Bush administration intends it to be: a continuation of the occupation by other means. Once again, too much prevarication and procrastination on the part of the U.S. is likely to be fatal.

There is a genuine, but rapidly diminishing chance that the United States can clamber out of the hole that it has dug for itself. In order to make the most of its odds, the White House has to give up its neoconservative pipe dreams of an elected Iraqi government that will kiss and make up with Israel, leave OPEC, and offer the U.S. Middle East bases in perpetuity.

The idea of the Bush administration ceding so much ground may seem like a pipedream, but the alternative is a very real nightmare.

Ian Williams is the UN correspondent for the Nation. He is a regular contributor to AlterNet.

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