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By far the most-cunning bid to manufacture a role for the U.N. in Iraq comes from Iraqi Shiite Muslim leaders seeking political cover for themselves.

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What they’re seeking is a face-saving way to retreat from their long-standing insistence on direct elections as the sole legitimate basis for Iraq’s transitional government, slated to assume full sovereignty on July 1, 2004. There’s almost universal acknowledgement that nationwide elections before that date are a practical impossibility, given the lack of an agreed-upon census, an electoral law, or adequate electoral machinery–not to mention the ongoing insurgency and otherwise unsettled conditions. And there’s growing awareness that, by mulishly insisting on the impossible, Iraq’s Shiite leaders would bear full responsibility for any delay in the much-anticipated handover of sovereignty.

But the awkwardness of facing facts–without also appearing to bow to American pressure–is further complicated by the religious edict or fatwa mandating elections that was issued last June by the Shiites’ preeminent spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Hussein Al-Sistani. Since the ayatollah cannot be seen to have changed his mind, much less to have conceded to the Americans, circumstances themselves must be shown to have changed–ideally by some neutral observer charged with pointing out what everyone already knows. “If it is truly impossible to hold direct elections, he wants to hear that from a neutral institution like the U.N.,” said a spokesman for the Islamist political party SCIRI (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq).

Never mind that this is akin to summoning a man from New York to inform the ayatollah what time it is in Najaf. It offered a long-sought opening for U.N. involvement that Secretary-General Kofi Annan was characteristically quick to seize. Just three days after Ayatollah Sistani’s request–warp speed in the diplomatic world–Annan advised the Security Council: “While there may not be time to organize free, fair and credible elections, every segment of Iraqi society should feel represented in the nascent institutions of their country.” Whether this bland pronouncement affords enough political cover for Iraqi clerics and politicians remains to be seen. But if the cost of this little diversion is a substantive role for the U.N. in Iraq’s political transition, that’s too high a price to pay.

At the same December 16 Security Council meeting, Iraq’s interim foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, rightly rebuked the Council for its lamentable record of appeasing Saddam’s gangster regime:

One year ago the Security Council was divided between those who wanted to appease Saddam Hussein and those who wanted to hold him accountable. The UN as an organization failed to help rescue the Iraqi tyranny from a murderous tyranny that lasted over 35 years, and today we are unearthing thousands of victims in horrifying testament to that failure.

Zebari followed up this plain statement of fact by correctly pointing out that Iraq’s U.S.-appointed Governing Council (IGC) also happens to be “the most representative and democratic governing body in the region.” “As Iraqis,” he added, “we strongly disagree with those of you that question the legitimacy of the present Iraqi authorities.”

These are strong words indeed, especially coming from an interim government addressing the Security Council as an observer rather than a member state. (Zebari’s supplicant status was underscored by his placement at the end of the Council’s horseshoe-shaped table, rather like a child invited to dine with the grownups.) Little wonder that the blunt-spoken Kurd’s remarks did not sit well with Kofi Annan and his diplomatic ally, France. “Now is not the time to pin blame and point fingers,” Annan told reporters afterwards. Indeed, words seemed to have failed this master of the diplomatic rabbit punch. “Quite honestly,” he reiterated, “now is not the time to hurl accusations and counteraccusations.” “I don’t want to comment on the past,” echoed the French ambassador.

What seems remarkable is that Zebari nonetheless appealed for–you guessed it–U.N. help: “Settling scores with the U.S.-led coalition should not be at the cost of helping to bring stability to the Iraqi people.” “Squabbling over political differences,” he added, “takes a back seat to the daily struggle for security, jobs, basic freedoms, and all the rights the UN is chartered to uphold.”

What’s wrong with this picture? Given its sorry record of appeasement and determined opposition to Iraq’s liberation, what exactly does the U.N. now have to offer “in the daily struggle for security, jobs, basic freedoms”?

Consider just who stands to gain from U.N. meddling in Iraq’s delicate political transition. Hint: It’s not the U.S., and it’s not the Iraqi people.

First, Security Council members like France, Russia, and Germany would gain undue and undeserved influence over postwar Iraq at U.S. expense. So too would neighboring regimes, all of which share a common interest in thwarting the emergence of Iraqi democracy.

Second, it is very much in the institutional self-interest of the U.N. bureaucracy to grab a piece of the action in the biggest game in town. But more is at stake than jobs for the boys for an institution in search of a role in the post-Cold-War world. For Annan sees the U.N. as an independent player in the world of nation-states, not simply as a dispensary of humanitarian aid and technical advice. That’s why he’s holding out for “complete oversight of the political transition, not lesser tasks such as election monitoring,” according to a senior U.N. official quoted on condition of anonymity in the December 17 Los Angeles Times.

What’s really at issue is the size and scope of the U.N.’s role, not the risks of operating in Iraq. An unnamed Security Council diplomatic helpfully translated Annan’s repeated requests for “clarification” as demands for a coequal role with the CPA: “He’s essentially saying, given the risks, you’ve got to make it worth our while.” Left unsaid is that if this ploy reduces U.S. influence in postwar Iraq–as it necessarily does–so much the better.

Third, certain Iraqi factions would like nothing better than having another set of foreigners to play off against the Americans. That’s why two IGC members who normally don’t see eye-to-eye–Sunni secularist Adnan Pachachi and Shiite Islamist Abdel Aziz al-Hakim–both welcomed Annan’s surprise invitation to a three-way meeting with the CPA on January 15. As Don Corleone would say, this is nothing personal; it’s business. But Iraqi political figures would do well to weigh the short-term tactical advantages of an alliance with the U.N. against the costs of parasitic U.N. bureaucracy and perpetual tutelage over local politics in Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor.

Bear in mind that the CPA and the IGC already face steep hurdles in working out the November 15 “Agreement on Political Process” in the run-up to the July 1 transfer of sovereignty. These include resolving the much-vexed elections issue by mid-January; finalizing the all-important interim constitution (by February 28); and concluding status-of-forces agreement with all coalition partners fielding troops in Iraq (by March 31). Does anyone seriously believe that adding the U.N. to these bilateral negotiations would help rather than hinder progress? And does anyone believe that U.S. interests would have been better served if the U.N. had been present as an independent actor with its own agenda during the talks leading up to the November 15 agreement itself?

In properly bilateral negotiations, three’s a crowd. That’s especially true where the third party defines itself largely in opposition to U.S. interests and values.

An earlier piece discussing strategies for dealing with Iraq’s various factions advised against treating friends and enemies exactly the same. Any doubt where the U.N. belongs?

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



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