UN Secretary General Kofi Annan recently stated that his organization should have a decisive political role in Iraq because, as one of his aides was quoted by The Financial Times, is "not possible to have two jockeys on the same horse." Annan, along with the Security Council’s anti-U.S. trio of France, Russia, and Germany, was wrong on the first matter and correct on the second. But the issue of UN’s role goes well beyond Iraq, to the very core of international order and the role of states in general and the United States in particular. Is the mythical “international community,” as represented by the UN, going to be the ultimate guarantor of global security and the maker of rules of international conduct, or are individual states, or groups of states, entitled to decide on security matters and act accordingly?
In Iraq, so far, the UN has acted as it usually does. Toothless on its own, when its chief envoy to Baghdad was killed in the August truck bombing of the UN’s headquarters there, it pulled out most of its personnel “until security circumstances” improve--i.e. until somebody else dramatically improves those circumstances. Imagine that the Paris/Annan idea of the UN role in Iraq becomes reality and the UN, put in charge, quickly transfers authority to whatever Iraqi institutions it finds in place. It would be protected, most likely, by Fijian, Bangladeshi, and perhaps a few better battalions of UN blue helmets. This author’s own experience with the UN’s biggest-ever operation, in Cambodia in 1993, suggests that rules of engagement which could only be described as irresponsible (e.g., no shooting back unless headquarter bureaucrats give a green light) will be the rule. And Cambodia was not the only, just the biggest, example of the UN at work in dangerous environments, including Bosnia prior to NATO’s intervention, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Rwanda.
Security aside, what would be the most likely UN political approach to Iraq? First, no controversial decisions, since France, or whoever replaces Syria as the Arab/Asian member of the Security Council (Syria was elected on October 8, 2001, for a two-year term that began in January 2004), may object. Second, decisions by committee (or the Security Council) ensure that a consistent UN approach on Iraq will be easier than herding cats. Finally, it will live up to its reputation as a well intentioned but weak and bumbling entity. Less than major powers ranging from Liberia to Rwanda, from Israel to Lebanon, have challenged, manipulated, disregarded, and gotten away with humiliating the UN. Even sub-state entities such as Hezbollah in southern Lebanon or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia have managed to do this.
None of this even takes into account the specific realities in Iraq. The Kurds, the best organized and, for now, most militarily efficient element there, are strongly pro-U.S. and autonomy-minded. Would they allow UN bureaucrats from Belgium or New Zealand to tell them how to organize their society? For the Shia majority, the issue is ultimately power, and Iran, among others, will make sure that this remains their objective, UN or not. For the historic losers, the Sunni, terrorism would seem to work as political leverage. In their eyes, the UN retreat from the country after the August bombing of the UN compound seems a vindication of what can be achieved through terrorism. And while some Iraqis may hate the U.S. and others like or manipulate it, at least it is respected by all. The UN is disrespected by all, hated by a few Islamist bombers, and feared by nobody.
Looking closer at what happened in Bosnia, the same UN representative who ran the operation in Cambodia was put in charge in Sarajevo, with similar results: failure. The runners-up in the election the UN arranged there were allowed to wrest power from the victors with guns. Indeed, the men with guns were allowed to run wild in the Balkans until somebody else--the United States, under NATO’s flag--could impose temporary order, working outside of the UN’s “legitimacy” umbrella. The difference between Bosnia and Iraq is that Bosnia was a regional (and a marginal region at that) problem, whereas Iraq is a major Arab and indeed Muslim country.
All of this bring us to a more fundamental problem with the UN: its General Assembly. The Assembly is the perfect example of bogus democracy, Nauru, Lebanon, and the Maldives have votes, just as the United States, Japan, and Germany do. But the U.S., Japan, the EU nations, Canada, China, and Russia (a total of 19 states, or 10 percent of the 191 member states) are asked to contribute over 85 percent of the UN’s budget, from which the remaining 90 percent of members benefit.
It is not much better in the Security Council, whose 5 permanent members in fact control whatever decisions are needed. Russia, with a smaller GNP than Brazil, is one of the five, because Stalin was a founder of the UN; France is another nostalgic relic, as, in truth, is the UK. Mr. Annan’s reform efforts offer no real solution. Will the UN have any better decision-making ability or legitimacy if it makes Brazil (whose current regime subsidizes Cuba), India (which is obsessed with offering hypocritical lessons on morality to anyone who might be paying attention), or Nigeria (which is eternally on the brink of fracture) permanent, veto-wielding members?
Viewed in realistic, if unflattering, light, what is the UN, and what is the basis of its claims to a dominant role in Iraq? Kofi Annan’s job is to promote the UN, but this is as dangerous as it is understandable. Americans, who have traditionally been skeptical of what ultimately was their own creation in 1945, tend to remember past irresponsible and outrageous votes in the General Assembly (“Zionism is racism,” “The media has to be controlled”) and the Security Council’s vote on Iraq this year, where France managed to block resolutions supported by the U.S. and common sense.
The problem, which neither the Bush administration nor its opponents running for office have proven good at explaining, is that the UN is not an either/or matter. Most UN agencies do a decent job at helping people everywhere, albeit at a high bureaucratic cost. It can and often does help solve humanitarian, health, postal, and communications issues. But on security or nation building matters, the UN is at best ineffective, and more often than not counterproductive. Americans should make this distinction – or be educated into making it.
On the other hand, the Bush administration should also be educated into renouncing its present notions of somehow having the UN as an equal or “vital” partner in Iraq, and remember what Kofi Annan’s people said: there can’t be two jockeys on the same horse.