April 26, 2004
None of us would want John Negroponte's next job.
President Bush recently tapped Negroponte, the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to be our next ambassador to Iraq. He will officially assume that post July 1, when a new Iraqi interim government takes power.
The problem is, we still don't know who will be in that government. Worse, it sounds as if we don't plan to have an active role in determining what that government will look like.
When a reporter recently asked President Bush who would be running the Iraqi government on June 30, he responded, "We will find that out soon. That's what Mr. Brahimi is doing. He's figuring out the nature of the entity we'll be handing sovereignty over [to]."
That's United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi who, to his credit, is certainly an accomplished diplomat. He's a former Algerian foreign minister and undersecretary of the Arab League. And in fact Brahimi went to Iraq at the request of the Bush administration, which wants U.N. help in Baghdad.
But, as President Bush knows, it makes no sense for the United States to give the United Nations a blank check to remake Iraq's government.
After all, the world body has no credibility in Iraq. This is an organization that studiously ignored its own 17 resolutions ordering Saddam Hussein to disarm. Plus, it ran the fraudulent oil-for-food program, which sold Iraqi oil on the world market and funneled some of the profits right back to Saddam and his supporters. Meanwhile, needy Iraqis starved to death as a result of Saddam's abuse of U.N. sanctions.
But even if Iraqis were willing to overlook this troubled history, neither they nor we can ignore the fact that some of Brahimi's proposals could create serious trouble. And at the first sign of tough going after Saddam's downfall -- the suicide bombing of the U.N.'s Baghdad headquarters -- the world body folded its tents and ran home.
Brahimi's plan would dissolve the Iraqi Governing Council and replace it with an interim government consisting of a cabinet, a prime minister and a president. That government -- to be selected by the United Nations, with input from the United States and the outgoing Iraqi Governing Council -- would run the country until elections can be held next January.
Such a plan means many Iraqis would have less voice in their government than they have now. After all, the current Governing Council was carefully selected so it would contain representatives from virtually every competing faction. Under the Brahimi plan, those representatives would lose their democratic voice, making it more likely that some groups could turn to violence -- and place American troops at greater risk.
Further difficulties seem almost unavoidable, of course, since a small group of radicals is determined to prevent an orderly handover of power. But there's little reason to believe a government picked by the United Nations would be an improvement over the current interim government. As Governing Council member Mahmoud Othman put it, a government selected by the U.N. "will not be successful." Instead, we should leave the Iraqi Governing Council in place until elections can be held. An interesting compromise would be to ensure that Brahimi's cabinet looks like (or is) the Governing Council. That gets to win-win-win.
And keep in mind that the boots on the ground still will be mostly American. The U.N. has no military presence in Iraq, and has had no humanitarian presence since the suicide bombing last August. When violence erupts, it's our servicemen who will be on the front lines.
The United Nations should certainly have a larger role in Iraq. The United States welcomed international support as we put together the coalition that won the war and ousted Saddam. We will welcome international support as we lay the groundwork for a peaceful, democratic Iraq. However, the only way to win the peace is to allow Iraqis to run their own country.
We're on the right track, and next year's elections and the move to Iraq's interim constitution should cement the deal. But we'll succeed only if Iraq is run for, and by, Iraqis -- not by U.N. appointees.