Global Policy Forum

The UN in Iraq: Handle With Care


By Jeffrey Laurenti*

Century Foundation
July 27, 2007

America's able representative to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, has signaled that the Bush administration will now press for heightened involvement of the United Nations in Iraq. He is surely right that, if any outside intervenor can help Iraqis regain peace and stability at this late date, it's probably the United Nations. But if Iraqis and the Arab world see the United Nations as simply a tool for achieving the Bush administration's agenda for Iraq, the U.N. will fail as miserably as Washington has failed.

From his tours of duty as U.S. ambassador in both Afghanistan and Iraq, Khalilzad attests to the U.N.'s "inherent legitimacy" and its "flexibility to talk to all parties"—among them the violent resistance to the American occupation and the current Iraqi government—as well as its convening power "to work out a regional framework to stabilize Iraq." The reality, however, is that what has been "driving the crisis in Iraq" since the 2003 invasion has been the American military presence, which most Iraqis tell pollsters they oppose and the Muslim world detests. Unless the United States guarantees that it will withdraw all its troops after an internal settlement, and that it is committed to maintaining no lingering military bases, the United Nations will be unable to broker an agreement with Iraqi insurgents "to give up their armed struggle."

It is unrealistic to expect a powerless United Nations to achieve in Iraq what raw American power could not achieve—an oil law, demobilization of militias, constitutional revision, etc.—unless the U.N. has a major new card to play. With the promise of a complete end to the U.S. occupation, there is a chance the United Nations can achieve what Ambassador Khalilzad envisions. As simply an adjunct to the occupation, the U.N. will again be discredited and a target—both for Iraqi insurgent attacks, as it was in August 2003, and for its usual chorus of conservative critics in Washington.

The Bush administration had summarily rejected a U.N. trusteeship for Iraq in the first flush of victory over Saddam Hussein's hollowed army in 2003. It later invited in the U.N.'s Lakhdar Brahimi, who had brilliantly facilitated an Afghan political process after the fall of the Taliban, to talk to the many Iraqi political factions that would not talk to the occupying power over formation of an interim government in 2004—but handed off titular sovereignty to its own choice, Iyad Allawi, anyway.

If the United Nations is to have any prospect of success at helping Iraqis put their country back together now, it cannot be the agent of Washington's agenda. Both among Iraqis and with neighboring states, successful mediation will require compromises from all sides—including major compromises of the Bush administration's war aims. If Ambassador Khalilzad has persuaded the President of that, perhaps the U.N. has a faint chance of success at extricating America from a lightless tunnel of our leaders' making.

About the Author: Jeffrey Laurenti is Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation. This Taking Note expands on the argument he advanced in the New York Times as a letter to the editor, in response to Zalmay Khalilzad's Op-Ed piece.


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