August 27, 2003

August 27, 2003 | Commentary on Middle East

Target U.N.

Tragedy and terrorism struck last week in Iraq. Not so long ago, a column in this space described the good news from Iraq that's mostly ignored by the news media, but bad news travels post-haste to the front-pages, and there was plenty of it. The suicide bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on August 19 was absolutely outrageous and ought to galvanize world opinion against Al-Qaeda, which has now claimed "responsibility" for the deed. Whether that will happen is, of course, a question. After the condemnations, the reaction has been mainly calls for greater involvement by the United Nations in Iraq -- as opposed to renewed efforts to root out the criminals who did this.

You don't have to be any great fan of the United Nations to be sickened by the cold and cowardly calculations that went into the attack. The terrorists, like the suicide bomber in Israel who struck on the same day, do not want peace and political stability. They don't care who they kill to thwart that objective.

Among potential targets in Baghdad, the U.N. compound was certainly among the most vulnerable. In a sense, it was designed that way by a decision from U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Why? Because Mr. Annan did not want his people associated with the U.S. military occupation. In retrospect, this was a terrible miscalculation that ought to be the subject of a full investigation at the United Nations. The effect was to make the U.N. staff sitting ducks for the terrorists, who for reasons of their own decided to target the international community.

The attack killed U.N. Special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and 22 others, wounding many more, who were there to help the Iraqi people. In addition, the attack also jolted into focus again the discussion over the United Nations' role in the reconstruction of Iraq.

Some of us have felt from the beginning that -- based on past experience in the Balkans and in Africa - that the United Nations is not at all well equipped for exercising political or military control in Iraq. The fact that half of the U.N. staff is now being pulled out in the wake of the bombing can only bolster that view. The muddled chains of command and lengthy lines of communications to New York for decisions that have to be made in an instant would be disastrous if applied to Iraq. Therefore, humanitarian and refugee work is what the organization does best if it is to be involved.

Nevertheless, there is a growing chorus both here in Washington and internationally -- from the French, among others, of course -- demanding that the United Nations be given more control.

The terrorist attacks and the steady drip of daily U.S. casualties (now 138 since the major military action was declared over by President Bush) has produced calls from both Democrats and Republicans either for increasing U.S. troops deployments in Iraq substantially, or alternatively for accepting military and other assistance from nations such as Russia, France, Germany, India, Pakistan and Turkey under a multilateral umbrella.

Mr. Annan, however, has rebuffed President Bush's requests for international assistance unless the United States relinquishes the exercise and transition of political power in Iraq to the United Nations. That is just a bad idea, which the administration should continue to resist.

What is really the crux of the matter is an accelerated process to turn over governance of Iraq to the Iraqi people. For now, many more civilian workers are needed to facilitate that process. This would free up U.S. troops to do what they do best, establishing a secure environment in Iraq.

Mr. de Mello had been one of the strongest advocates of the 25-member Iraqi Interim Governing Council, which was constituted on July 13 to give Iraqis a governing authority with legitimacy both at home and abroad. Critics have faulted the council for including too many returned exiles and for being impractical with a nine-member rotating presidency. Still, it is clearly movement in the right direction. Likewise, Iraq needs an Iraqi police force and army. It is the only durable long-term solution.

The United States should certainly welcome contributions from other nations; NATO could provide the right kind of venue. But it is a mistake to think that a multinational force would be less of a red rag in the face of fundamentalist radicals and of remnants of Iraq's old guard still loyal to Saddam. Any such notion ought to have been dispelled by last week's terrorist attack. For the terrorists, we are all targets.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Originally appeared in the Washington Times