Post-War Iraq: Asking the Right Questions

The frustration of the American officer on the streets of Baghdad was almost palpable in the CNN report: “They’ve got 25 questions. I’ve got 5 answers.”

That was Tuesday, April 8, the same date President Bush, during a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, declared: “Rebuilding of Iraq will require the support and expertise of the international community. We’re committed to working with international institutions, including the United Nations, which will have a vital role in this task.”

Without question, the participation in UN-sanctioned peacemaking and peacekeeping missions by U.S. military units trained in the techniques of these operations often has been vital to their success. The mere presence of strong military forces from “coalitions of the willing” frequently was enough to re-establish the security and stability that are the prerequisites for the work of international institutions and nongovernmental humanitarian relief organizations. This was clearly the case in post-civil war Bosnia, where earlier the insufficiently armed UN peacekeepers could not prevent atrocities, and in Kosovo, where the U.S. took the lead in halting Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing campaign.

But Iraq is not Bosnia or Kosovo–nor for that matter East Timor (to which the U.S. provided materiel support but no combat forces) or Afghanistan or Haiti. Moreover, the troops who have fought their way to Baghdad over the past three-plus weeks are psychologically primed to perform traditional warfighting roles: destroying things and killing people, not peacekeeping roles. These realities raise questions of who, how, and what will be done in and for Iraq–and the region–in the post-Saddam era that is just now unfolding.

Ever since the UN Security Council refused to endorse the U.S. contention that Security Council Resolution 1441 (2002) authorized military action if Saddam Hussein failed to actively cooperate with UN inspectors, administration spokespersons have insisted that members of the military “coalition” would be the dominant contributors in Iraq’s reconstruction and re-integration into the world community. Despite Mr. Blair’s attempted gloss concerning the depth of UN involvement in the process the U.S. would allow, President Bush was quite explicit in the limits he envisaged. While praising as “a positive step” the appointment by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan of a “personal representative to the process,” Bush essentially relegated the UN to a subordinate role. “Well, it’d be a vital role as an agent to help people live freely. That’s a vital role, and that means food. That means medicine. That means a place where people can give their contributions. That means suggesting people for the IIA [Iraqi Interim Authority]. That means being, you know, a party to the progress being made in Iraq.”

The Pentagon’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, headed by retired U.S. General Jay Garner, is to run Iraq in the initial post-war occupation phase. Its missions encompass reconstituting basic services such as electricity, water, sanitation, and medical care; screening the remnants of the Iraqi civil service for individuals acceptable for retention under a new democratic government; and coordinating humanitarian aid programs run by the World Food Program (WFP), UNESCO, the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and private aid agencies.

Difficulties with this arrangement, which is not yet even in place, are already apparent. Despite the efforts of the British forces in Basra, distribution of relief supplies–a duty of an occupying power under international law–has been a shambles. Looting has been rampant. Without the cooperation of the Iraqi public, the number of British troops in-country simply are not enough to create and maintain physical security. And this is for a city of only 1.3 million; Baghdad, which will be the responsibility of the United States, has 5 million people. Euphoria may dampen appetites for a short time, but clean water and nourishing food will soon be demanded.

Moreover, General Garner’s superior is General Tommy Franks, the warfighting Central Command commander. For those in the world who resent the dominating power of the United States, the narrow base of influence on which Iraq is to be reconstituted will be seen as proof of U.S. imperial ambitions–including bases in Iraq and control of its oil–potentially spurring recruitment into extremist groups and raising the risks of terrorist actions. If, as the President consistently alleged, Iraq under Saddam was a threat to the world, reconstituting and re-integrating Iraq into the international community is the responsibility of the world.

Then there are the costs. As Senators Biden (D-DE) and Hagel (R-NE) recently pointed out, “Iraq is saddled with UN sanctions, an estimated $61 billion in foreign debt, and approximately $200 billion in reparations claims through the UN Compensation Commission.” And the estimated costs for post-war security, humanitarian aid, and reconstruction run from “$20-25 billion per year over 10 years.” There is no logic in the administration’s insistence that, because the U.S. chose to bear the main coalition burden in lives lost and treasure spent, the country should also choose a course restricting or even excluding many other countries that might be willing to contribute to the post-war reconstruction effort–particularly those that abstained from supporting or actually opposed military operations.

Finally, as happened after the U.S.-influenced meeting in Bonn, Germany that established the interim ruling authority in Afghanistan, the selection by the U.S. of the Iraqis who will constitute an Iraqi Interim Authority could raise doubts as to the independence of that Authority, even among Iraqis. This is more likely in Iraq than in Afghanistan, for there are more exiles with little direct, recent experience in-country vying for positions and influence in Iraq. Moreover, should those who obtain positions in the interim authority succeed to positions in the subsequent government, the suspicion will arise that the “fix was in” from the very beginning.

Afghanistan does offer a cautionary note in this regard: despite U.S. backing and fairly wide international support, the interim authority in Afghanistan controls little outside Kabul–and even that is due to the International Security Assistance Force. More telling is the fact that the U.S. military supplies the personal protection force for Afghan interim president Hamid Karzai.

Internationalization and United Nations are not four-letter words, literally or figuratively. Only the UN, as flawed as it may be, can lay claim to neutrality and global legitimacy. The U.S. recognized the status of the UN when it sought–but failed to get–endorsement of, and thus at least the passive participation of Member states in the war against Iraq.

Now it is time to secure full UN participation in meeting post-war Iraq’s humanitarian, reconstruction, and political needs. In particular, a new UN Security Council resolution providing for a UN leadership role in Iraq would help heal the breech created in the international community in the period leading to active hostilities.

That much also would help relieve the American officer’s frustration over his 5 answers for the 25 questions.