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America and the UN, together again?

The rebuilding of Iraq is exposing an interesting rift on the political right: Is “unilateralism” a matter of expediency or theology?

The United States is finding itself short of soldiers and money as it tries to bring democracy and stability to Iraq. It has deployed nearly 150,000 soldiers, many of whom have been there since last year, and some are openly grumbling that they want to go home. But given the demands of deployments in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, South Korea and elsewhere, there are few if any replacement units available.

There is also not much money available to cover reconstruction efforts that will probably cost more than $100 billion. With the United States spending almost $4 billion a month on its Iraqi military operations, and with this year’s budget deficit ballooning to more than $450 billion, neither the Bush administration nor Congress is eager to tap the Treasury for more reconstruction aid. Yet only $2.5 billion has been appropriated so far – a grossly inadequate amount.

The White House would love to get more help, financial and military, from America’s allies, but so far they are coming up with only a pittance. There are just 13,000 non-American soldiers in Iraq, most of them British. A Polish-led polyglot division of 9,000 more is set to arrive in September. But potential major contributors like Egypt, Germany, India, Pakistan, Russia and Turkey – to say nothing of France – have hinted they would help only if the occupation carried more of a United Nations imprimatur.

Are they serious? Who knows? But there’s no harm in testing their sincerity. If another UN resolution could reduce the strain on U.S. forces and wallets, why not seek it? The United States has worked well with the United Nations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and many other places. Why not in Iraq?

The only serious argument against the idea is that the occupation would be hindered by having to deal with tangled lines of authority and conflicting agendas. This is a legitimate worry, but it’s hard to believe that administrative efficiency is such an overwhelming consideration when you consider that the Polish-led division will field troops from more than a dozen countries. The Spanish will speak English with the Poles, who will speak Russian with the Ukrainians. (What language will they use with the Mongolians?)

A UN presence might entail some loss of U.S. control, but the U.S. viceroy, L. Paul Bremer, is already ceding power to a local governing council. And the vast bulk of military forces would still be from America – at the end of the day, it would still call the shots. Another Security Council resolution would change the perception of U.S. dominance more than the reality.

Yet there are many on the right who would rather vote for Howard Dean than come crawling back to the United Nations. Even many reasonable conservatives fear that any accommodation of Secretary-General Kofi Annan is unwarranted.

It is easy to see why conservatives are suspicious of the United Nations. Any organization whose human rights commission could be headed by Libya hardly deserves the adulation that it receives in some quarters. America will never cede to the Security Council the exclusive authority to make decisions of war or peace. Nor would any other major nation.

There was nothing wrong with President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq without UN blessing. President Bill Clinton and NATO did the same thing in Kosovo in 1999. The issue of whether to involve the United Nations in a particular problem should be based on pragmatic considerations: Does it help or hurt in achieving America’s foreign policy objectives?

Unfortunately, an excess of emotion in American politics has long made it hard to think rationally about this issue. Many on the left automatically assume that the United Nations is always the solution, while many on the right make the equally knee-jerk assumption that it is always the problem.

The reality is that the United Nations, while hardly a panacea, has its uses, especially in a place like Liberia where America has no intention of taking on the long-term task of nation-building. It’s too soon to know whether Iraq falls into this category. Much will depend on negotiations over what form an additional Security Council resolution might take. But conservatives shouldn’t try to short-circuit this process by ruling out UN involvement no matter what.

The primary objective should be to help Iraq and help America, not to hurt the United Nations.

The writer is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power.” A pragmatic alliance

2 thoughts on “America and the UN, together again?”

  1. One thing that might go unnoticed in the current American involvement in Iraq is that the people who would perform the civil engineering and community maintenance while wearing a military uniform are probably Reservists and Guardsmen. The Department of Defense cannot call up those 40-something specialists without uncorking a major backlash, even among conservatives.

    I doubt the USA has set aside money for anything other than military expediency.

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