National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 12, 2003

Discovering, the hard way, that we need friends

The see-sawing of influence in the Bush administration tipped recently away from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and toward Secretary of State Colin Powell who, Sept. 3, announced he was circulating a resolution seeking a U.N.-sanctioned international force in Iraq.

According to The Washington Post, the decision to seek approval of a U.N. resolution ended “a long and high stakes bureaucratic struggle, with the combined clout of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the State Department persuading a reluctant White House that the administration’s Iraq occupation policy, devised by … Rumsfeld, simply was not working.”

The episode is intriguing for the light it might shed on internecine White House tussles. The ascendancy of the Powell approach could have significant implications for how the United States acts in the world in the wake of the growing crisis in postwar Iraq. What actually happens on the ground in Iraq, however, will have far more importance for the safety of the world and could have even a greater effect than intra-administration politics on U.S. foreign policy.

President Bush’s acceptance of the judgment of Powell, the British government and Pentagon military brass on the importance of seeking an international force was a fairly direct refutation of Rumsfeld’s go-it-alone approach, which depended on minimal international help incorporated outside the U.N. apparatus.

It is also a vindication of those critics who understood, first, that Iraq was a complex and, for the Middle East, fairly progressive culture that would not yield easily to a makeover by invaders, and second, that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to “do” empire in the 21st century, even if you are the only remaining superpower.

The Bush administration spent its first two years walking away from the international community, abandoning treaties and insisting on conjuring up justifications for going it alone in matters of war. Perhaps it is learning the hard way that there are limits to power.

The early appraisal by experts is that the United States will have to relinquish considerable authority, or at least broadly share power, in both military and political areas. And there can be no mistaking that this reversal in direction is an attempt to patch up a scheme hatched by hard-liners in the administration, who were looking for any excuse to go back into Iraq. In Bob Woodward’s book, Bush at War, a look at the 100 days following the Sept. 11 attack, he makes it clear that Vice President Dick Cheney put Iraq on the table as a possible target on Sept. 12.

The day after Powell’s announcement, it became clear that the United States would face tough resistance on the way to approval of a U.N. resolution. France, strongly opposed to the war, and Germany, which also opposed the invasion, conditioned consideration of a resolution that would involve international troops on U.S. willingness to give the United Nations a significant role in Iraq and to speed up the restoration of Iraqis to high-level positions.

However the behind-the-scenes maneuvering on the resolution works out, it cannot be overlooked that the U.S./U.N. role in Iraq has a troubled history. When the most severe sanctions ever imposed on a country were put into place after the 1991 Gulf War, the United Nations was placed in the position of enforcing the U.S.-inspired sanctions regime. At the same time, the humanitarian arm of the United Nations in Iraq was charged with ameliorating the effects of the sanctions. Those effects were deep and severe. No matter how Rumsfeld and others try to spin that reality today, for the initial five or six years under the sanctions, ordinary Iraqis suffered horribly. According to a well-researched U.N. report, 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of 5 died as a direct result of the sanctions. Two long-term U.N. professionals overseeing the humanitarian effort resigned at different times in protest of the sanctions.

The United Nations is unlikely to allow itself to be placed in such a difficult position again. Returning to Iraq in force following the recent bombing of the U.N. compound there will probably only occur if the United Nations has significant authority to shape both security and political change.

National Catholic Reporter, September 12, 2003

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