As violence flares in Iraq, so does Washington discussion over the United Nations role in Iraq. Speaking to reporters in New Hampshire on April 12, Senator John Kerry suggested U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi as a possible success to Coalition Provisional Authority administrator L. Paul Bremer. Writing in the April 13 Washington Post, Kerry declared, “Moving forward, the administration must make the United Nations a full partner responsible for developing Iraq’s transition to a new constitution and government.” Prominent Senators Robert Byrd and Joseph Biden called late last week for the U.S. to cede political authority to the U.N. On April 8, Secretary of State Colin Powell even called the U.N. a “Coalition partner.” Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Richard Lugar previously argued that legitimacy in Iraq could only be tied to a U.N. resolution. The problem is what denotes legitimacy on the Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill cocktail circuit and what Iraqis see as legitimate are two very separate things.
During the Saddam Hussein’s near quarter century in power, the Iraqi government used its media monopoly to shape public opinion. Iraqis saw only what Saddam wanted them to see and heard only what the Iraqi government wanted them to hear. Etched into ordinary Iraqis’ perceptions of the United Nations were comments Secretary-General Kofi Annan made at a February 24, 1998, press conference. “Can I trust Saddam Hussein? I think I can do business with him,” Annan stated. Iraqi television repeatedly rebroadcast this clip, framed as an implicit endorsement of the Iraqi leader.
As violence ignited last week, U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi returned to Baghdad. According to John Negroponte, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Brahimi’s mission was among “the highest U.S. policy priorities involving the U.N.” Perhaps Brahimi is welcome in New York or Kabul, but he is not in Baghdad. How do Iraqis view Brahimi? Kurds express disdain for Brahimi. “All we need is another Arab nationalist,” one Kurdish human-rights worker said. “Throughout the Oil-for-Food program, the U.N. seemed more concerned with giving Palestinians jobs than giving Iraqis medicine,” a physician in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah said. “As undersecretary of the Arab League between 1984 and 1991, Brahimi stood by as Saddam Hussein conducted an “Arabization” campaign to drive Iraqi Kurds from Kirkuk and surrounding villages. Brahimi did nothing as the Iraqi government dropped chemical weapons on Halabja, killing 5,000 civilians.
Mainstream Shia hold Brahimi in ill regard. “We don’t like Bremer, but Brahimi would be even worse,” said a Baghdad Shia merchant with strong business ties throughout southern Iraq. Brahimi, who three months after the end of the first Gulf War left the Arab League to become Algeria’s foreign minister, used neither bully pulpit to intervene in the massacre of tens of thousands of Iraqi Shia in the aftermath of the Gulf War. As the new Iraqi government uncovers dozens of mass graves throughout the country, pictures of Brahimi hugging Tariq Aziz, a former deputy prime minister expected to face charges of crimes against humanity, circulate widely in Iraq, sold along with other photographs and memorabilia of the former regime in the Mustansiriyah market of Baghdad.
Any moral standing the U.N. possessed ended soon after U.N. weapons inspectors returned to Iraq. On January 25, 2003, 29-year-old Adnan Abdul Karim Enad jumped into a U.N. inspector’s jeep, screaming “Save me! Save me!” As television cameras rolled, U.N. security guards dragged him from the vehicle and handed him to Iraqi soldiers. The same day, an Iraqi government worker forced his way into the U.N. compound, pleading for protection. U.N. guards evicted him. Hans Blix, then chief weapons inspector in Iraq, criticized the Iraqi asylum seekers, saying they should find “more elegant ways” of approaching U.N. staff. They cannot. Both men apparently disappeared in Iraqi custody, likely executed soon after Blix’s team turned them over to their persecutors. Rather than show remorse, Blix suggested to the Danish daily Jyllands Posten on April 7, 2004, that Iraqis were better off under Saddam. With telephone lines open and long-time exiles returning to see their families, the incidents of that day, not broadcast on Iraqi television, have become known. To Iraqis, the U.N. represents moral ineptitude. “They investigated the U.N. workers who allowed the massacre at Srebrenica. How come they don’t hold accountable those who handed that poor boy to his death?” one Shia Iraqi asked as we sat in Baghdad living room.
Iraqis are voracious readers as they compensate for three decades of information quarantine. The 170 newspapers established after liberation not only cover the present, but also explore the past. Four months ago, al-Mada published oil-ministry documents which showed that Saddam’s regime systematically bribed officials, activists, and journalists from 46 countries in exchange for political support. Among those receiving payoffs was Benon Sevan, director of the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food program. “While we were selling our possessions to make ends meet, U.N. officials were making millions off our sweat,” one Baghdad municipal councilman told me last February. Iraqis describe U.N. workers under Saddam’s regime as “little kings” and still, four years after my first trip to Iraq, locals still refer to Arab U.N. workers as the “Egyptian and Sudanese mafia.”
While L. Paul Bremer, Coalition Provisional Authority administrator, expressed outrage over the bombing of Iraq’s U.N. compound last August, Iraqi reaction was more subdued. “It was an inside job,” a Shia doctor insisted as we sat in a restaurant the next day. The U.N. had not only refused Coalition protection but had also retained guards employed under the former regime. “Didn’t they know that their guards reported to the Baathists?,” the doctor said. Iraqis watched in disgust as the U.N. subsequently fled to Jordan. “They reward terrorism,” a Sunni engineer told me. “And, they’re taking the SUVs we paid for [with Oil-for-Food money], a Kurdish politician added. A March 3, 2004, internal U.N. report placed blame squarely on shortcomings among U.N. personnel.
Some Iraqis would welcome a U.N. presence. On April 6, the Arabic satellite channel al Jazeera said that Islamists and militants fighting in Fallujah demanded U.N. involvement. While violence against Americans has consequence, they understand that the U.N. symbolizes weakness. Banners in the largely Islamist town of al-Amarah call for greater U.N. involvement among demands for a sharia-based constitution. Only with U.N. involvement could Islamists bypass the democratic will and involve Iran and Saudi Arabia in Iraqi affairs.
United Nations involvement will hamper, not help. Militant Islamists and remnants of Saddam’s regime interpret our turn to the U.N. as sign of weakness, while Iraqi democrats see the U.N. role as a sign of abandonment. Both associate the U.N. with corruption. Ironically, while administration officials and senators seek greater U.N. involvement to pacify Iraqis, their calls have the opposite effect. Washington’s hand-wringing is a sign of weakness welcomed only by those we fight.
–Michael Rubin is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He spent 16 months in Iraq, most recently as a Coalition Provisional Authority governance adviser.