At their recent summit meeting in Northern Ireland, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged that the United Nations would play a "vital role" in postwar Iraq. That is a mistake. The U.N.'s role in Iraq should be confined to the distribution of humanitarian aid. Decisions about the political transition in that country should remain in the hands of American and British authorities.
Other members of the American foreign policy community have reached a similar conclusion, but largely for the wrong reasons. Some assert that the United States and Britain have "earned" the right to govern Iraq during the transition period by virtue of their military victory. But that is the logic of conquest, and coalition leaders insist that they came to Iraq as liberators, not conquerors.
Other American opinion leaders who advocate limiting or excluding the United Nations want to do so as a form of punishment for the world body and the members of the Security Council who refused to give Washington a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. Such proponents of vengeance want to humiliate France, Germany, and Russia for their recalcitrance. But that course would be petty and counterproductive. The United States should be looking for ways to repair its damaged relations with other major powers, not seeking ways to further poison those relations.
The most compelling reason for marginalizing the U.N.'s role in postwar Iraq is to maximize the prospects of a prompt U.S. withdrawal from the country. If the U.N. becomes a major player, we add a party with its own agenda-and that agenda is likely to be an extended nation-building mission.
The last thing America needs is to become bogged down in a multiyear effort to try to make Iraq into a model democracy. Washington's goal should be to turn Iraq over to the Iraqi people as soon as possible and withdraw its troops even if the political outcome is not entirely to our liking. The longer U.S. forces stay in Iraq, the greater the degree of suspicion there will be throughout the Islamic world that Washington's purpose is imperial conquest, occupation and exploitation. America already has a major perception problem among Muslim populations without the burden of that image.
Some advocates of a large role for the United Nations assert that it would neutralize the suspicions of U.S. imperialism. That belief is naive. A multilateral fig leaf will not dampen Islamic anger-especially if the occupation turns into a multiyear venture. Whatever the reality of the decision-making structure in occupied Iraq, Muslims around the world will see Washington and London as the controlling powers.
Only a rapid departure of U.S. and British forces and a willingness to relinquish full political control to Iraqis will reduce Muslim suspicions. And achieving the goal of a prompt political transition and military withdrawal will be much easier if the United Nations is not in a position to complicate matters.