Commentary

Missing the Point: Iraq and the U.N. Panacea

Foreign and domestic critics of U.S. policy in Iraq have been urging the Bush administration for months to cede the leading role to the United Nations. The administration now seems willing to request a new Security Council resolution that would give more authority to the U.N. But the contemplated changes are too limited to mollify critics. Washington’s latest policy shift is likely to fail on multiple levels. What would work? Withdrawing U.S. troops and allowing the Iraqis to shape their own destiny.

Although the administration apparently intends to give the U.N. a more prominent role in security operations, the political transformation process, and the economic reconstruction of Iraq, Washington is not about to relinquish control. All U.S. troops in Iraq are certain to remain under an American commander. And a U.S. official is likely to remain in charge of the civilian reconstruction effort.

The administration apparently aims to create a U.N. facade for what would remain a U.S. mission. The Bush team hopes that by creating at least the illusion of a powerful U.N. role, other countries will contribute troops and treasure. That motive is understandable. It has become painfully clear that the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq are insufficient to maintain a stable security environment. And the Iraq mission is getting very expensive. Military operations alone are running at a nearly $4-billion-per-month pace, and L. Paul Bremer, the chief civilian administrator, estimates that rebuilding Iraq will cost “many tens of billions of dollars.”

Hardly surprising that the United States would like other countries to bear some of those burdens. But numerous governments have rebuffed Washington’s request for aid, contending that they could not participate without a stronger U.N. mandate. It is important to note that such countries as Germany, Turkey, Pakistan, and India — which the United States has lobbied hard for assistance — have populations that are overwhelmingly opposed to the U.S. presence in Iraq, and the governments must take that sentiment into account.

In any case, few countries are beating down the door to help the United States. That’s not likely to change merely because Washington is willing to give the United Nations a modestly greater role. The majority of the costs and risks will be America’s as long as we have forces in Iraq.

Moreover, even if the United States ceded the leading role to the U.N., it would not solve a fundamental problem: The longer U.S. forces stay in Iraq, the more America will be seen as an occupier rather than a liberator. Attacks directed against Americans and other targets will likely increase, not decrease. And as the bombing of the U.N. headquarters confirmed, the insurgents are not making a distinction between the United States and those who assist the United States.

What’s needed is an exit strategy. U.S. authorities should accelerate the transfer of power to an interim Iraqi government. If a greater U.N. role would facilitate that exit strategy, fine. If it would impede a rapid exit, then Washington should resist deeper involvement by the world body. The goal in any case should be to get U.S. troops out of Iraq as soon as possible and let the Iraqi people determine their own destiny. We should not become distracted from that fundamental objective by a far less important debate about the proper extent of U.N. authority in Iraq.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author or editor of 15 books on international affairs including Peace & Freedom: Foreign Policy for a Constitutional Republic.