Commentary

The U.N.’s Role in Post-War Iraq

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, echoing similar calls from France and Germany, has declared that the United Nations should have a “central role” in post-war Iraq. It is somewhat ironic that Russia, France, and Germany — three countries that wanted no part in the war — want to have a “central role” in the post-war reconstruction. Many Americans have reacted to this proposal with disdain, arguing essentially that, having left the heavy lifting to the United States, these three countries are in no position to demand a place at the peace table.

But while this reaction is understandable, the exclusion of other countries from the rebuilding of Iraq may be counter-productive. In planning for the peace, Americans should welcome the involvement of other nations, including those nations that did not contribute troops to the war effort, as a way of sharing the financial burden, and the continued risks, of the post-war occupation. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) had it right when he declared at a recent Capitol Hill press conference that the United States should share the “opportunity with the rest of the world out of our own naked self-interest.”

Unfortunately, the involvement of the United Nations in the rebuilding of Iraq is likely to be a double-edged sword for U.S. policy makers. On the one hand, the international community at large, and the United Nations in particular, must not be absolved of its responsibility for post-war Iraq. For the 12 years since the first Gulf War, many leaders in the U.N., including Secretary General Kofi Annan, and the representatives of France, Germany, and Russia, favored inspections to monitor Hussein’s weapons programs, and punitive economic sanctions to pressure the regime.

We now know that this endeavor was deeply flawed because it was dependent completely upon U.S. military force. Absent the threat of military action, Saddam Hussein refused to obey the U.N. mandates. Moral suasion and international opprobrium are meaningless to a man who tortures his own people for sport. But the international community must stop calling on the United States as a global policeman, and the U.S. must stop answering the call.

The United States has footed the bill for an extensive troop presence in the region since the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1990. The military buildup to the current war was an additional expense. Some estimates place the costs of keeping American forces in the region at $20 billion a year. It is unfair that American taxpayers should continue to shoulder these burdens. Other countries could demonstrate their commitment to peace by sending military and police forces to maintain order until elections can be held, and by pledging financial support for the new Iraqi government. On the other hand, recent experience in Kosovo and Bosnia, where U.N. personnel have been stationed for several years, suggests that U.N. involvement in Iraq is likely to slow the rebuilding process. U.S. policymakers should avoid any entanglements that would delay the creation of a new Iraqi government, elected by the Iraqi people.

Iraq has a relatively high literacy rate, a functioning middle class, and an infrastructure to support the rebuilding effort. Most importantly, the country’s enormous oil wealth will attract private firms willing to contribute to the rebuilding effort. If Iraqis negotiate contracts with these firms, no one can rightly claim that the military campaign against Saddam Hussein was all about enriching American businesses. The most reasonable compromise is for the U.N. to be involved in ways in which it already has expertise. U.N. humanitarian personnel have begun to distribute basic necessities in the country, and this can and should expand as coalition forces tighten their control and crack down on lawlessness. Similarly, U.N. election monitors have supervised elections around the globe and U.N. supervision of elections in Iraq, and certification of the election results, would lend legitimacy to a fledgling government that is certain to be criticized — rightly or wrongly — as a puppet of the United States.

The Bush administration claimed that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States. His regime is destroyed. The threat, therefore, is eliminated. The Bush administration should remain focused on ending the military occupation and on turning the government of Iraq over to the Iraqi people as quickly as possible. If the member states of the United Nations can help, and if they can do so on our timeline, we should let them. If not, we should tell them to mind their own business.

Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.