After five months of brutal press coverage, the Bush administration is calling on the United Nations to “save the day” in Iraq—news that is most unwelcome for anyone who wants to see improvement in the country, particularly Iraqis themselves.
To hear the “mainstream” media tell it, the land liberated from Saddam’s tyranny is in shambles and the U.S. effort is a devastating failure. As usually happens on cable television debate segments, the question posed—“should the U.S. pull out of Iraq?”—helped frame the debate. But since completely pulling out of Iraq is simply not an option, the next “best” thing is bringing in the UN.
As much as the UN is bound to screw things up, the sad fact is that the bar has already been set quite low by the U.S. Mistakes have been piling up since almost day one—some benign, some scandalous—as the U.S. seems not entirely up to the task of rebuilding a devastated nation.
In the center of the country—including Baghdad and surrounding areas—the electricity is still three hours on, three hours off. Checkpoints are causing massive frustrations and annoyances, such as when a young Iraqi man was shot in the back after a soldier’s gun accidentally went off. (The young man survived, though he is badly injured.) And the U.S. forces have been slow—sometimes exorbitantly so—in responding to tips from Iraqis about Saddam’s regime or current threats.
Although fixed months ago by civilian administrator Paul Bremer, the State Department’s habit of naming Baathists and Saddam loyalists to key positions in the transitional government still rankles ordinary Iraqis. “They have not forgotten,” explains someone in Iraq who has worked with the U.S. efforts there.
But of all the problems with the U.S. “occupation” of Iraq, far down the list is the size of the military presence. Critics—including almost the entirety of the “mainstream” media—have groupthinked their way to the conclusion that most of the difficulties stem from the “lack” of soldiers on the ground.
The 160,000 American and British soldiers had little to do with the electrical problems and the slow response time to tips from local Iraqis. And the troops certainly had nothing to do with placing into positions of power Saddam loyalists.
It’s entirely possible that an influx of new UN military forces under U.S. command will improve the situation. But it’s also at least as likely that the number of Baathist- and al Qaeda-led attacks may increase. Notes an administration official, “Arabs will see this as a sign of fear—and the terrorists will pounce.”
Like any smart criminal enterprise, Baathists and al Qaeda are going to apply the most energy to attacking when the enemy is weakest. Bringing in the UN is tantamount to the U.S. partially pulling out, creating the perception—if not the actual reality—of retreat. Just as past U.S. non-responsiveness to pre-9/11 attacks only emboldened al Qaeda, the UN move could encourage even more attacks against ground forces in Iraq.
With increased risk usually comes increased reward, but not so with the UN. Its management of the oil-for-food program after the end of the Gulf War allowed Saddam to skim billions while his people starved. And contrary to current finger-in-the-wind opinion, it does not have a spotless track record in peacekeeping operations. Asks one administration official rhetorically, “When did the UN pull out of Kosovo?” (The answer, several years later, is still “not yet.”)
To top it all off, the U.S. will manage to further anger the already-annoyed Iraqi people. Notes an administration official, “Iraqis hate the UN. Where was the UN for them (when Saddam was still dictator)?” This is the international body, after all, that saw fit to have Saddam’s henchmen head up its arms control commission. You can forgive Iraqis if bitterness still lingers.
The mastermind of this genius stroke, of course, is the State Department. Just as they trusted Baathists more than ordinary Iraqis for top spots in the transitional government, they now are turning to the UN. The operative question, posited by an administration official, is: “If there are going to be mistakes in Iraq, why not just let them be made by the Iraqi people?”