December 23, 2003 | Commentary on International Organizations
"You're either part of the solution or you're part of the
problem," goes a popular military axiom. That's especially true in
Iraq, where for years the United Nations refused to help solve
problems. Because of that, it ended up making the situation there
For example, when Saddam Hussein ignored U.N. disarmament resolutions in the late 1990s, the world body refused to enforce its own orders. First it opened talks with the dictator. When those predictably failed, the U.N. ended up pulling its weapons inspectors out entirely. Saddam would still be in power today, tyrannizing his own people and posing a threat to the rest of the world, if the United States hadn't assembled a coalition to depose him.
The fall of Saddam gave the U.N. another chance to join the right side of history. But even in today's post-Saddam era, it's choosing to remain irrelevant in Iraq-which means it remains a big part of the problem there.
Iraq's acting foreign minister recently traveled to U.N. headquarters to make this very point. Hoshyar Zubari had harsh words for the Security Council. "The U.N. as an organization failed to help rescue the Iraqi people from a murderous tyranny that lasted over 35 years," he said. "The U.N. must not fail the Iraqi people again."
Zubari wants the U.N. to pitch in by providing more humanitarian aid, and by advancing the electoral and political process. But the best thing would be to get its members-especially those on the vaunted Security Council-to forgive Iraq's Saddam-era debt.
During his decades in power, Saddam ran up more than $120 billion in debt to foreign governments and private lenders. Russia holds about $4 billion of that, while France holds $2 billion. In an interesting coincidence, both nations opposed the coalition's efforts to oust Saddam last spring.
And keep in mind where more than half the money Saddam borrowed went. Not toward building a better country-that's what Iraqis are struggling to do today. No, it was invested in Saddam's military and his gilded palaces.
"The past is the past," intoned France's ambassador after Zubari asked for U.N. support. "We should not look at the past but look forward." But how can Iraq possibly build a future with billions of dollars in debt hanging over it? If its new democratic government inherits a crushing debt, it's likely to fail. And in Iraq, the failure of democracy could mean a return to dictatorial rule, and a government friendly to terrorists.
"Old Europe" has done virtually nothing to help Iraq, politically or financially. But it still expects to profit from the rebuilding effort. Its representatives howled when the Pentagon announced that only countries which took part in the coalition to oust Saddam could win contracts under an American-financed $18 billion Iraq rebuilding effort.
"This is a gratuitous and extremely unhelpful decision," huffed European Union commissioner Chris Patten. What we need, he said, is "for the international community to work together for stability and reconstruction in Iraq."
That is indeed what we need. And the logical place for that cooperation to start would be at the U.N. As Zubari told the Security Council, today Iraq enjoys "the most representative and democratic governing body in the Middle East." That government, of course, was put in place by the U.S.-led coalition, over the objections of the U.N.
The United Nations again faces a choice: It can become involved in the critical process of rebuilding Iraq, or it can remain on the sidelines. If it does, it will be irrelevant, again. By choice.