High Stakes at the United Nations

In a war and occupation that has seen more than its share of turns and twists, next Monday’s meeting at the United Nations could prove crucial to short and long-term American goals in Iraq.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan has invited delegations from the Iraqi Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority to discuss and define the role the U.N. might play in Iraq over the coming year. Britain’s top envoy to Baghdad, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, will be in attendance. The United States – which pressured Annan into calling the meeting as its ambitious timetable for transition to Iraqi rule grows subject to doubt – just yesterday signaled that it was sending Coalition Provisional Authority chief L. Paul Bremer to attend. The decision comes after weeks of indecision and significant hesitation by the Administration.

Bremer’s late addition to this meeting should come as no surprise to those who have followed the lurching U.S. policy toward the U.N. throughout the war in Iraq – a policy that has been manipulative at best and hostile at worst.

The stakes at the meeting are high. For the last several weeks the United States and the U.N. have been engaged in a tussle over whether, when and under what circumstances the organization will send international staff back into Iraq. If the U.N. stays out, it forfeits a role in the most politically charged and important nation-building exercise in recent history. If it re-enters Iraq but is marginalized or comes under attack, the organization’s credibility will endure damage.

The United States likewise has much to gain or lose. Skillful diplomacy and realistic thinking could result in reapportionment of some of the burdens of restoring Iraq to stability, and also begin to rebuild our tattered reputation as a superpower able to work well with others. Without the U.N., the United States will continue down the lonely, costly road of shouldering virtually on its own the heavy risks and burdens that accompany ongoing reconstruction and political transition.

Those at the table Monday will have reason to doubt the sincerity of American interests and promises. Washington has kept Ambassador John Negroponte on a short leash, making it clear at every turn that it is the hardline neo-conservatives back at the Pentagon who call the shots. The Bush Administration had a well publicized internal debate over whether to seek Security Council permission before launching the military attack. Faced with the Council’s unwillingness to expressly authorize intervention, the President called the UN an "ineffective, irrelevant debating society."

Even after its authority was undercut, the Security Council legitimized the results of the war after the fact, and rapidly responded to a U.S. request for help with humanitarian relief and reconstruction efforts. The Council dispatched to Baghdad a mission headed by Sergio Vieira De Mello.

But when the mission ended in tragedy – a bombing that left 22 dead, including de Mello whose behind the scenes diplomacy was proving highly effective in assembling the Iraqi Governing Council. Secretary General Annan, who was not ready to risk more lives in an insecure environment, felt he had no choice but to withdraw the U.N.’s international personnel.

The U.N.’s absence made Washington’s heart grow fonder. Having announced that the CPA would hand over Iraq to the Iraqis by the end of June, the United States has lately begun pressing the U.N. to return to monitor caucuses that would select an Iraqi National Assembly, and otherwise help ensure a smooth transition.

The U.N. is understandably wary. Secretary-General Annan has set out two conditions for return to Iraq – a well-defined, substantial role that warrants the effort and risks; and concrete reassurance on security. Annan wants in, but knows the organization cannot afford to simply play second-fiddle to the U.S.-led occupying power from now until June. Such a position would undercut the U.N.’s credibility among locals and lessen its ability to play honest broker between the nascent Iraqi government and the U.S.-led military force that will stay in Iraq after June.

In fact, U.S. and U.N. interests on Iraq are at the moment fairly closely aligned: the UN wants to play a role, and the United States actually admits it needs the help. The issue is whether the U.S. has learned the lessons of the past year and is willing to cede to the UN the autonomy and influence it needs to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis and help repair its global reputation.

There is no reason to believe that the U.N.’s presence in Iraq will undercut the U.S.’s authority. The United States will have de facto control over who heads the U.N. operation (de Mello was Washington’s choice) and, as both the ruling power in Iraq and the most powerful nation on the Security Council, recourse if the mission goes beyond its bounds. More fundamentally, it is in the U.N.’s self-interest to ensure a smooth relationship with U.S. authorities. The U.N. wants to prove that it can play with major powers in big league contests and Iraq is an essential test case.

The potential benefits for the United States of a substantive role for the U.N. are great. The CPA has committed to a June 30 deadline for transition even as conflicts over political change are mounting. The U.N. has a better chance than the United States to convince the influential Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, to modify or drop his insistence on direct elections, particularly as al Sistani is reportedly unwilling to so much as grant an audience to Bremer. Members of the Governing Council have repeatedly said that elections supervised by the U.N., not the CPA, will be more acceptable.

A strong U.N. presence can also help ensure that Iraq continue to get the international support it needs once the United States scales back its presence. U.N. agencies and member nations offer expertise in areas critical to stability – security training, civilian policing, critical infrastructure repair, and ongoing democratic development. Relying on direct help from European nations will likely not work, as delays in meeting their commitments for reconstruction funds demonstrate.

The United States should move next week to build consensus on an expanded and substantive role for the U.N. in Iraq’s political and economic reconstruction. The meeting on January 19th and informal contacts at next week’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos provide good opportunities to reach agreement. For the sake of the Iraqis, our military and the American taxpayer, we must not miss this chance for positive change.

Suzanne Nossel served as Deputy to the Ambassador for U.N. Management and Reform at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in 1999-2001. Nossel is currently an executive at a media company in New York City, and writes frequently on foreign policy issues.

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Suzanne Nossel

Affiliated Scholar