Bad Kips Bay Play
Power without responsibility.


What’s the point? What, if any, are the possible benefits of Thursday’s U.N. Security Council Resolution 1511 as compared with its certain costs? How exactly are U.S. interests–as well as those of ordinary Iraqis–served by a whole series of substantial, last-minute concessions satisfactory to Russia, France, Germany, China, Syria, and the U.N. bureaucracy itself, all determined opponents of the liberation of Iraq?

Resolution 1511 offers at best superfluous Security Council blessing for Coalition forces in Iraq in exchange for accepting potentially troublesome deadlines and an almost certainly disruptive U.N. role in Iraq’s delicate political transition.

Resolution 1511 is the sixth version of a proposal that the U.S. first introduced on Sept. 4 for the stated purpose of providing extra political cover for states otherwise reluctant to supply troops or funds for the U.S.-U.K. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). From the start this approach was wholly a matter of perceptions and atmospherics, since the Security Council had already recognized the CPA’s exclusive authority under international law “to promote the welfare of the Iraqi people through the effective administration of the territory” under Resolution 1483 (May 22).

The Sept. 4 draft marked an abrupt reversal of settled U.S. policy, a shift described in this space as “partly intended to change the subject at a time of mounting press criticism of U.S. ‘unilateralism’ and of its attendant costs in blood and treasure–not to mention sinking poll numbers.” Less charitable conservative commentators criticized this about-face as smacking of panic and prompted mainly by electoral concerns rather than properly strategic ones. After initially overselling its possible benefits (especially by hinting that India and Pakistan were poised to commit substantial forces), the Bush administration later acknowledged that a fresh U.N. resolution wouldn’t make much difference one way or another.

As it happens, more than 30 states have already contributed troops for service in various roles in Iraq; and Turkey’s parliament reversed course just last week and agreed in principle to supply some 10,000 troops. Similarly, Japan recently agreed provide $1.5 billion in immediate assistance (as compared with $233 million from the European Union), possibly as part of a four-year, $5 billion aid package. None of these commitments was made contingent on the passage of an additional U.N. Security Council resolution.

Why then did the Bush administration persist in pursuing an increasingly pointless resolution at the cost of mounting concessions to its diplomatic adversaries?

It’s fair to say that this policy took on a life of its own in the search for agreement for its own sake. In fact, this episode is a classic example of the State Department’s diplomatic tunnel vision, which confuses ends and means. According to this view, any agreement is better than no agreement; and a unanimous multilateral agreement–especially one made at the U.N.–is best of all, whatever its actual contents or effects.

What exactly did the U.S. concede in exchange for a slightly different hue of protective coloration?

Artificial Deadlines. The initial Sept. 4 draft wisely set no deadlines in recognition of the messy process of stabilization and political development now underway in Iraq. Resolution 1511, however, sets two potentially troublesome deadlines wholly unrelated to the actual situation on the ground.

First, the interim Iraqi Governing Council–not the CPA–has until Dec. 15 to set a firm timetable for approving a new constitution and holding nation-wide elections. By stripping this prerogative from the CPA, Resolution 1511 sharply reduces U.S. leverage in relation to the IGC on this and on other matters (since everything’s ultimately connected in political give-and-take). What’s more, Iraq’s fragile institutions and emerging civil society are at a very early stage of development, when the imposition of unrealistic and artificial deadlines simply forces Iraqis to run before they’re able to walk.

Second, the Coalition forces’ new mandate is subject to Security Council review in one year–just three weeks before U.S. national elections. That mandate automatically expires in any case “upon completion of the political process” as defined in vague and possibly conflicting terms. Look for an October surprise sprung by the Bush administration’s international adversaries at its moment of maximum vulnerability.

In both cases, the U.S. has offered hostages to fortune, relinquished the initiative to others, and reduced its own freedom of action to respond to changing circumstances.

U.N. meddling. Resolution 1511 greatly expands the U.N.’s “vital role” in “the restoration and establishment of national and local institutions for representative governance” that was unwisely conceded in Resolution 1483. The new resolution repeatedly grants the U.N. carte blanche to intervene as an independent actor in the political-development process so as “to lend the unique expertise of the U.N. to the Iraqi people in this process of political transition, including the establishment of electoral processes.” Note that this particular formulation does not limit the U.N. to nuts-and-bolts assistance in the mechanics of holding elections.

Resolution 1511 in effect grants the U.N. a license to intervene at will in the political process without imposing any corresponding duties (which remain the CPA’s sole responsibility as occupying power under international law). That’s the effect of the repeated qualification “as circumstances permit,” with the result that the U.N. can pick and choose its spots and kibbitz more or less as it pleases.

This grant of power without responsibility is altogether unhelpful. Merely the presence of an unnecessary third actor in the political process creates the temptation for some Iraqi groups to play one set of foreigners off against the other. That’s an unnecessary distraction from the real business of Iraqi political leaders making tough choices and trade-offs–and then selling the resulting compromise to their constituencies, who in turn must be made to understand that Free Iraq cannot be run for the exclusive benefit of any one group. What’s more, the CPA’s delicate but essential duty to set clear red lines safeguarding U.S. interests will be greatly complicated by the U.N. presence. In this case, three’s a crowd.

How the U.N. can possibly help in these circumstances is hard to imagine. Bear in mind that the U.N., increasingly uncertain of its identity and role in the post-Cold-War world, defines itself more and more in direct opposition to U.S. interests and values. Hence this candid admission by Shashi Tharoor, one of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s most senior aides: “The worst fear of any of us is that we fail to navigate an effective way between the Scylla of being seen as a cat’s paw of the sole superpower and the Charybdis of being seen as so unhelpful to the sole superpower that they disregard the value of the U.N.” In other words, U.N. institutional imperatives require reflexive opposition to U.S. policy–but only where it’s possible to get away with it.

Recall as well that the U.N. bureaucracy–along with Russia, France, and China–served as Saddam’s surrogates throughout the Nineties while doing quite well for themselves without doing much good for the Iraqi people. A joint Russian, French, and German statement issued after Thursday’s vote made that clear: “The conditions are not created for us to envisage any military commitment and no [sic] further financial contributions beyond our present engagement.” In other words, the French, Germans, and Russians stand ready to help the long-suffering Iraqi people in every way short of actual assistance.

Pakistan, which also voted for the resolution, immediately made clear that its own forces are not on offer for service in Iraq.

Whether or not Resolution 1511 proves to be another dead letter or a serious obstacle is ultimately up to Kofi Annan. Annan, it will be recalled, single-handedly torpedoed an earlier U.S. draft resolution offering the U.N. an appropriately circumscribed role in Iraq. Heraldo Munoz, the Chilean U.N. ambassador, helpfully parsed the secretary general’s blunt rejection, which was made at a luncheon for Security Council ambassadors. It’s not a matter of principle, he explained, but rather how big a piece of the action the U.N. gets in the biggest game in town. “If you are a kid playing with marbles and you invite someone else to join,” Munoz said, “you have to give up some of your marbles.”

At best this latest resolution will serve as a talking point at the upcoming donors’ conference in Madrid and on Capitol Hill. But it hardly begins to answer the concerns raised by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.): “I just have a hard time going back to South Carolina and telling people who are losing their jobs that we need to give $20 billion of their money to the Iraqi people, who are sitting on a sea of oil.”

The bottom line is that the Bush administration can expect similar rebuffs from the U.N. unless the State Department can be made to apply the basic diplomatic operating principle that what goes around, comes around.

Jack Cullinan, an expert in human-rights and international law, formerly served as a senior foreign-policy adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops.