The UN Is Best Placed to Rebuild Iraq
with Rob Malley, The Financial Times, 7 April 2003
The US has made absolutely clear that it does not want the United Nations to assume overall responsibility for civil administration in postwar Iraq. On his visit to Europe last week, Colin Powell, US secretary of state, did nothing to soften his position that the US would not relinquish "significant dominating control" to anyone else. Yes, the UN can co-ordinate some humanitarian relief, and hopefully will come to bless a US-installed interim Iraqi government - but as for a more substantial role, forget it.
A more substantial and central role here is exactly, however, what the UN should be playing. As soon as conditions permit, the Security Council, with US support, should establish its own transitional civil authority - with full executive and legislative powers but, for administrative implementation, relying to the maximum extent possible on local professionals and civil servants, as well as experts from the Iraqi diaspora. Such an authority would operate alongside a separately constituted security force, which would no doubt be US-led but ideally would itself be given Security Council endorsement as a multinational force.
The UN's own reluctance to take on the civil task is understandable. It worries about overstretch. It is concerned about being responsible for the aftermath of a war that the vast majority of its members strongly oppose. It knows the US will fight to retain overall control, while others may argue that UN involvement on this scale will legitimise the war.
But the truth is that there are no better options. Full assumption of authority by the US would create a serious backlash in the region and, over time, in Iraq itself. A US trans-itional overseer would provide a constant reminder of the lack of UN mandate for the war and, as we may already have seen, a recruiting tool for suicide bombers aimed at coalition peacekeepers and civilian aid workers alike. From the outset, a great many in the Middle East saw in this war a disguised US attempt to impose its domination and reconfigure the region. How better to confirm this notion and further undermine Washington's posture than to establish a US-managed Iraq?
Rapid transfer of power to an interim Iraqi authority also presents dangers. There are no pre-identifiable Iraqi candidates whom either the US or the international community can hand-pick to run an interim authority. Washington will be tempted to turn to members of the exiled opposition. But their limited contacts with and current knowledge of the Iraqi people cast serious doubt on the degree to which they are genuinely representative.
The reason, above all, why the UN must step in is to create the space within which an authentic, indigenous Iraqi political process can take hold. The US and the international community are not entering a vacuum. The day after does not mean day one. Ba'athist rule for 30 years, and 12 years of international sanctions, have profoundly transformed Iraq's social make-up. New social classes have emerged: a sprawling bureaucracy and civil service; a once potent, now pauperised middle class; resilient entrepreneurs; an impoverished and volatile urban underclass. Tribal and kinship loyalties, once vociferously denounced by the Ba'ath party, have since been instrumentalised by the regime.
Nationalist feelings remain potent, despite the regime's attempts to hijack them. Even religious sentiment has flourished of late, as this once secular state has desperately sought to bolster its legitimacy. The social groups and centres of power that have sustained the Ba'ath polity for years will not collapse with the regime. They will remain important parts of the Iraqi scene, supporting the new arrangements if they benefit from them, undermining them if they do not.
This is not to say that rebuilding Iraq is an impossible task. On the contrary. Iraq possesses virtually all the necessary tools to create an independent civil society and institutional pluralism. They are trade unions, businesses, professional associations, social clubs, religious institutions, even tribes - in short, the ingredients the Ba'ath party helped put into place and then proceeded to empty of meaning. The army itself has an important role to play.
But it will take time to disentangle Saddam Hussein's regime from Iraqi society and create the conditions for genuine, legitimate self-rule. Institutions need to be carefully vetted to rid them of those guilty of serious crimes and human rights abuses. And a reckless witch-hunt must be avoided that, in the broad name of de-Ba'athification, would target individuals who joined the party out of fear or necessity and whose contribution to a future Iraq is essential. A visibly international body is the best way to manage that process.
It may appear unseemly to be discussing the aftermath of a war that is far from over and brings daily tragedies. But having failed miserably in managing the situation that led to war, the least the international community can do is properly manage the one that will follow it; and that means focusing on the issue now. The challenge is to ensure that the vast majority of Iraqis, who have been brutally disenfranchised for more than three decades, are at last given a genuine voice.