The U.N.'s Strong Suit in Iraq


The U.N.'s Strong Suit in Iraq

Apr 17th, 2003 3 min read
Peter Brookes

Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs

Peter helps develop and communicate The Heritage Foundation's stance on foreign and defense policy through his research and writing.
Coalition forces in Iraq are still fighting off pockets of resistance, trying to stop looting and searching for weapons of mass destruction. But as that important work goes on, it's also critical to get on with the next step -- creating a peaceful, stable, united, prosperous and democratic Iraq.

So who should take the lead in rebuilding Iraq?

Some say that the Coalition should step aside and let the United Nations administer the country.

But, opponents reply, the U.N. lacks the capacity or resources to administer post-war Iraq. Besides, they add, the world body failed so abjectly in the pre-war diplomatic phase that it has no moral standing to call the shots after the conflict ends.

The answer falls somewhere in between. A productive partnership between the Coalition powers and the U.N. is possible -- if the labor is divided properly.

The U.N. can play a positive and constructive role in Iraq. But only if it plays to its strengths -- meaning humanitarian aid and reconstruction. Governance and security must be left in the hands of the Coalition and those nations chosen by the Coalition to assist.

Why? For one thing, the job of administering a free Iraq is simply too big for the United Nations to handle. Indeed, U.N. officials have conceded as much. "Although a U.N.-led transitional authority may seem more palatable than an administration by an occupying power," an internal report done for the secretary general said, "the U.N. does not have the capacity to take on the responsibility of administering Iraq."

The U.N. is eager to be involved -- but as the secretary general's report noted, only as long as the mandate doesn't exceed the resources provided for the mission.

Many U.N. international failures started with just such a mismatch between the mission and the resources given to accomplish it. That likely would be the case in Iraq as well.

Moreover, the U.N. tends to be slow, bureaucratic and a slave to consensus. It is often inflexible and probably wouldn't be able to deal efficiently with rapidly evolving matters in Iraq. Leadership by a small coalition would lend itself to quick, flexible and effective decision making.

Creating security and stability is the most important job right now in assuring Iraq's future. It will be fundamental for a successful humanitarian, reconstruction and governance effort. Security operations will include crushing the resistance, monitoring the borders, securing oil fields and finding weapons of mass destruction. The Coalition powers should be solely responsibility for providing security.

That's because the U.N.'s record in security operations -- especially peacekeeping -- is spotty at best. U.N. missions in Kosovo, Bosnia and Rwanda do not inspire confidence. The international community can certainly help out, and the Coalition should consider including other capable forces -- such as NATO -- in peacekeeping operations. But the Coalition must remain in command.

The challenge of governing a free Iraq also should be left in Coalition hands. An interim authority is the quickest, most efficient and direct way of transferring control of Iraq back to the Iraqi people -- where it belongs.

The U.N. has run transitional governments, but has no experience administering a transition for a country this large. Iraq is not East Timor, Cambodia or Bosnia. Iraq is a country of 23 million people the size of California. That's 33 times bigger than East Timor. The U.N. can play a positive role later on in governance by running elections -- starting at the local level.

The United Nations' strength is in the humanitarian field, where it has a good record of feeding the hungry and getting refugees home. The U.N.'s World Food Program, High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF are uniquely qualified and should play a central role in rebuilding Iraq.

The reconstruction of Iraq will also include addressing state debts and rebuilding infrastructure. The United Nation can also lend a hand here. Loans from the U.N.'s multilateral financial institutions, including the World Bank and the IMF, will be critical in getting Iraq back on its feet economically and improving the lives of ordinary Iraqis.

The United Nations can -- and should -- make important contributions to leading Iraq from tyranny to freedom. But Coalition leadership -- not U.N. administration -- will be the most efficient and effective way to bring about an open, free, prosperous Iraq as quickly as possible. There's no point setting the United Nations -- and the Iraqi people -- up for failure.

-Peter Brookes, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, is a senior fellow for national security affairs at The Heritage Foundation (

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire