Time For Some Realpolitik


By Simon Tisdall

May 9, 2003

Having abused and abandoned the United Nations and gone to war in Iraq without UN backing in defiance of international law, the Bush administration has returned to the Security Council this week - hoping to win UN legitimacy and legal authority for its postwar plans. Does the administration feel any sense of contradiction, or mild irony, or even slight shame in pursuing this course of action? Apparently not. Secretary of state Colin Powell and other officials are already rehearsing their arguments. No country can now reasonably argue that UN sanctions on Iraq should continue, they say. Nobody should stand in the way of a better future for Iraq. Nobody should bear grudges. Everybody should now rally round the US-directed post-conflict agenda. "Whatever happened in the past is in the past," says Powell.

The White House is not now proposing a new, umbrella UN resolution on Iraq because it regrets the manner in which, before the war, it spurned the UN's collective view and undermined the UN's authority. It has not thought better of its contempt for multilateral decision-making on security issues or revoked its newly-tested doctrine of pre-emptive or preventive war-making. The White House is going back to the UN because it has to. The administration needs the UN if any new US-sponsored and US-conceived government of Iraq, interim or otherwise, is to receive international recognition. This is a practical as well as symbolic matter.

It does not matter, for example, whether the US decides Ahmad Chalabi, to pluck one name from many, is Iraq's next leader if neighbouring Arab countries and the international community as a whole do not formally accept him as such. Without such recognition, Chalabi might find himself in a position not unlike that of Rauf Denktash, the "president" of northern Cyprus whose government is ignored by all but the Turks. The UN has a primary role to play in facilitating Iraq's political process. The administration needs the UN not only to suspend or preferably, in its view, immediately scrap sanctions on Iraq; it also needs it to agree to phase out the oil-for-food programme on which over half the Iraq population is to some degree dependent. Without such collective agreement, it cannot sensibly proceed with its ambitious plans to reorganise and expand the Iraqi oil industry, sell its product abroad, and use the resulting earnings to fund reconstruction. Without independent international oversight, it will face constant, damaging suspicions that, despite assurances to the contrary, it may try to exploit Iraq's oil wealth for its own ends.

The White House needs to obtain the UN's blessing if international lending institutions such as the World Bank and IMF, multinational corporations and private investors are to provide funds to the Iraqi authorities and contract with Iraqi businesses without fear of default or legal challenge. Without consensus at the UN, Iraq's chances of clearing its substantial Saddam era debts will be immensely more problematic. Without a specific UN mandate, the US-driven plans for an international stabilisation force in Iraq will be severely handicapped. Although some east European countries seem keen to curry favour in Washington by contributing troops to an expanded "coalition of the willing", most states (such as Germany) will not do so without UN agreement. That means the US (and Britain) will not be able to reduce their own troop presence as quickly as they hope without further jeopardising internal security. It also means the two partners will continue to bear all or most of the cost (and risk) of an indefinite military engagement.

Although, perversely, it does not currently accept it, the US also badly needs the return to Iraq of UN weapons inspectors, both Hans Blix's chemical and biological weapons experts and the IAEA's nuclear sleuths. While it appears that the Pentagon is prepared to countenance a limited role for the IAEA, it is dead set against Blix and is waiting for his personal UN contract to expire. This animosity dates back to the pre-war security council sessions at which Blix dared to challenge US intelligence assessments and argued that Iraq was broadly cooperating.

Yet the fact that absolutely nothing in the way of deployable weapons of mass destruction representing a significant threat to the US or others has been found to date seems to nullify US criticisms of Blix's supposed failure to find a smoking gun. Few will believe the US if at some point it suddenly announces it has got the goods on Saddam's arsenal. For credibility's sake, international verification is essential - so now the talk is of joint inspections by US and non-US weapons experts drawn from "objective" countries. But it will not be forgotten that Iraqi WMD were the principal casus belli. The US needs indisputable evidence showing its fears and subsequent actions were justified. The deposing of Saddam, although welcome, is not enough.

The UN is vital in many other ways, not least in relation to the still disorganised humanitarian relief effort and the treatment and possible trial of prisoners and regime figures. For all these reasons, the Bush administration needs the UN just as much as previous US administrations have - and just as much as the UN needs the US. If Powell and others are sincere about putting the past behind them, then it would be as well to recognise this mutual dependence and drop the ideological and political backbiting. Despite what the Bush hawks imply, the UN is at bottom merely the sum of its parts. It is not some kind of monolithic obstacle or rival to US policy. And the UN's principal parts, in terms of the security council, include countries such as France, Germany, and Russia.

For the sake of the American national interest, as well as the people of Iraq, the Bush administration would be well-advised to recognise its own needs, stop the blame games (particularly in respect of France), accept these geo-strategic and legal realities and switch from confrontational to cooperative mode without any more delay. All the signs are that the anti-war countries are ready to mend fences. What they want, and in this they should be supported, is frank acceptance by the Bush administration that the UN, acting collectively, does have a vital and indeed symbolically leading role to play in Iraq, as in other international crises - and that attempts to deny it will only lead to even greater divisions and disputes now and in the future. The new US-British umbrella resolution on Iraq, if pursued inflexibly, has the potential to cause an even bigger row than that which preceded the war. Yet it could become the means through which not only the reconstruction of Iraq but also of the much-damaged international system might commence.

• Simon Tisdall is the Guardian's chief foreign affairs leader writer.

More Information on the Disagreement in the Council
More Information on Sanctions against Iraq
More Information on Iraq
More Information on Sanctions

FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.