Full command or no involvement

by Amin Saikal (SMH, September 5, 2003)


The UN should take on the burden of the Iraq mess only if the US cedes control, writes Amin Saikal.

After lambasting the United Nations for months as an ineffective and irrelevant organisation, the US President, George Bush, has turned to it for help.

In proposing a new UN resolution recognising "that international support for restoration of conditions of stability and security is essential to the well-being of the people of Iraq" he wants the UN to share the burden and blame in Iraq.

It would be erroneous of the UN Security Council to authorise the deployment of a multinational peacekeeping and peace-enforcing force without a full commitment from the US to allow it to play a determining role in administering and rebuilding Iraq, and stabilising the region, with a clear set of objectives within a specific timeline.

The reason for Bush's retreat from a hostile attitude towards the UN is obvious. It is the US failure to bring peace and security to Iraq. US casualties have mounted, with no end in sight, and as a consequence the President's popularity has received a real beating in the polls, prompting him to become very concerned about his chances of re-election.

This must remind him of his father's predicament when in early 1991 he won the first Gulf War and achieved a domestic popularity rating of about 80 per cent, but lost the election by the end of the year.

The US and its allies Britain and Australia have made a real mess of Iraq. They have sustained hundreds of casualties, without either enabling the Iraqi people to benefit from the fall of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship or unearthing any weapons of mass destruction.

Bush has finally come to recognise that he has entangled the US in a politically and militarily disastrous conflict. It has also rebounded on his most cherished project - the war on terrorism.

If al-Qaeda and its associates were looking for a favourable battleground where they could fight the Americans on their terms, and for an additional cause to enlist more recruits and sympathisers, the Iraq occupation has provided them that.

By the same token, the Iraq problem has discredited the agenda of the small group of neo-conservatives who dominate Bush's foreign policy. It has underlined the danger of their combatant approach to reshaping the Middle East and creating a new world order based on the supremacy of the US military power.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the group is likely to abandon its agenda. Given the entrenched position of the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, and the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, in the Administration, it may make a tactical rather than strategic retreat until such time as the prospects for Bush's re-election take an upward curve.

It is important that the Security Council makes the right decision. It should be careful not to let the UN be landed with such responsibilities that could enable the Bush Administration to reduce its burden in Iraq without modifying its unilateralist behaviour.

It must ensure that the UN is ceded all the authority it needs to make its role effective not only in empowering the Iraqi people to govern and rebuild their country as soon as possible, but also in promoting causes of stability in the region as a whole.

This would involve the UN gaining interim control over Iraq's natural resources, especially oil, and playing a determining role in securing a lasting resolution of the Palestinian problem, sooner rather than later.

It must ensure that in return for supporting the Bush Administration in Iraq, it receives a firm commitment from the Administration that from now on it will act in concert with the UN and international law in addressing problems in world affairs.

Otherwise, it will be risking wearing much of the blame for possible future failures in Iraq and the region.

Professor Amin Saikal is director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University.

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