The U.N. tries again in Iraq.

Just when it seemed we had heard the last from the United Nations on the subject of Iraq, the battle of Turtle Bay resumed last week. An army of European statesmen regrouped and declared that, having been defeated in their efforts to constrain U.S. power before the war, they intend to pick up where they left off as soon as it ends. The European Union issued a formal statement insisting that "the U.N. must continue to play a central role" in Iraq, and the EU president, Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, exhorted "the U.N. to manage the whole process" of administering the country's political future. The admonition, European diplomats hastened to add, was directed at Washington.

The State Department, keen to maintain stability in Iraq--and largely indifferent to building democracy there--also hopes for a U.N.-centric postwar plan. Until recently, it had lobbied to keep a strong central government in place under U.S. control for as long as two years. But, with that prospect fading fast in the face of opposition from the White House and the Pentagon, America's diplomatic corps has latched onto the next best thing: a strong central government under U.N. control for as long as two years. Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte, along with officials from Foggy Bottom's Bureau of Near East Affairs (NEA)--who play an increasingly influential role in the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, where NEA veteran and former Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine has already been appointed to run civilian affairs in Baghdad--are pushing for a U.N. resolution that would eventually hand over Iraq's postwar administration to the world body.

Just as he did before the war, Britain's Tony Blair has cast his lot with Powell and pressed President Bush to return to the Security Council. Arguing that the U.N.'s imprimatur can improve his political fortunes at home and Britain's image abroad, the prime minister has pushed the White House to come up with a U.N. resolution that, in his words, "governs not merely the humanitarian situation but also the post-Saddam civil authority in Iraq."

Oddly enough, the party undermining this multilateral project is none other than France, which objects not to the substance of the U.N. plan but to the mere fact of its American support. Reacting to a proposal floated by Blair last week that would have lent a U.N. mandate to the postwar occupation, French President Jacques Chirac declared, "France will not accept a resolution of this nature tending to legitimize the military intervention and giving the American and British belligerents the right to administer Iraq." The sentiment was echoed by Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Sergey Lavrov, who said, "It's for [the secretary-general] and not for anybody else to give these proposals."

Far from alarming the Bush team's Euro-phobes, France's reluctance to endorse the postwar vision of Blair and the State Department pleases no one so much as the hawks at the Pentagon, in the National Security Council, and in the vice president's office, as well as more than a few members of Iraq's exile community. Their concern is less the U.N.'s humanitarian agenda than its political inclinations. The Bush team's famed aversion to nation-building notwithstanding, most of its members now concede that American forces will need to do exactly that in Iraq, and they have no objection to the U.N.'s playing a role in at least the nation's physical reconstruction. Hence, they support a U.N. resolution calling for the resumption of Iraq's oil-for-food program and the assistance of U.N. humanitarian-relief agencies.

At the same time, they fear the effect of inserting the world body into the minutiae of Iraq's political life and believe the country's future would be far better served if the United Nations were confined to digging latrines there after the war. "I'm praying [the French] keep this up," says a senior administration official. "If the U.N. has a say in [postwar] Iraq, the first thing they'll probably do is put Saddam back in power." Specifically, they worry that Iraq could be transformed into an arena of competition among Security Council members and a laboratory for U.N. ineptitude. Equally worrisome is that an all-powerful U.N. proconsul in Baghdad could diminish rather than encourage the prospects for democracy in Iraq. British and EU officials invoke the "Kosovo model," which calls for a U.N. commissioner or administrator to wield ultimate authority in the realm of Iraqi politics as well as humanitarian affairs, as a useful precedent. But, for good reasons, that is not yet the official U.S. position. 

One of those reasons derives from the avowed purpose of this war: the liberation of Iraq. Just as Iraqi exiles argue that an extended period of American rule will retard the growth of Iraqi democracy, they argue that a similar period of U.N. rule would be, if anything, an even greater impediment. "A U.N high commissioner will be easily manipulated by outside forces," predicts Entifadh Qanbar, Washington representative of the Iraqi National Congress, who worries particularly about the influence of antidemocratic Arab governments. "The U.N. will give us bureaucracy at the expense of democracy." Indeed, while it may have other virtues, the United Nations, where Libya currently presides over the world body's Human Rights Commission, has hardly distinguished itself as an agent of democratization. Whether in Bosnia or, more recently, in Kosovo, U.N.-sanctioned administrators have repeatedly expressed a preference for order over liberty--subverting nascent democracies through procedural gimmicks, arbitrary edicts, and the summary firing of democratically elected officials.

The clearest failure of the "Kosovo model" has been Kosovo itself. As no less a supporter of the world body than U.N. authority Roland Paris recounts in his forthcoming book, At War's End: Building Peace After Civil Conflict, "The powers of Kosovo's elected assembly were limited and subject to the oversight of the Special Representative of the Secretary General, who retained the right to dissolve the assembly, call for new elections, and veto any measure passed by the assembly that violated the purposes of the operation." Indeed, not six months after convening a representative assembly in December 2001, Kosovo's elected officials found one of their first resolutions annulled by the U.N.'s special representative, Michael Steiner, on the grounds that it implied a desire for sovereignty. Reaching deeply into Kosovo's political arena, the United Nations has dismissed government officials, barred campaign rallies, and now presides over a network of ostensibly representative local councils whose edicts it can overturn on a whim.

In Iraq, the likelihood that the aims of a U.N. proconsul would run counter to the aims of democracy may be even greater. To begin with, says Ralph Wilde, a U.N. scholar at the University of London, "what we find in the arena of civil administration is the considerable use of appointees to the United Nations--former officials of national governments, for whom U.N. service is an interlude in a career of state service." And State Department officials predict that, were the United Nations to appoint a high commissioner for Iraq, the post would almost certainly be filled by a native Arabic speaker--most likely an Arab diplomat such as U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi or chief nuclear inspector Mohamed ElBaradei--who balances the interests of the Iraqi people with the broader agenda of the Arab states, not one of which qualifies as a democracy. "Arab governments would much rather have a U.N. administrator in Iraq," says liberal dissident Kanan Makiya, "and, if [the administrator] is a member of one of those governments, Iraqis will simply be governed by the lowest common denominator of Arab politics, which is certainly not democracy."

There is also the problem of competing national interests. A decade ago, then-U.N. Secretary-General Boutros BoutrosGhali predicted that the United Nations "may emerge as greater than the sum of its parts." Alas, the organization has in recent years revealed itself to be no more, and often considerably less, than that. During the 1990s, France and Russia transformed the U.N.'s mission in Iraq into an arena for pursuing their own political interests (the most important of which seemed to be constraining the United States) by, among other things, refusing to endorse incriminatory findings by U.N. inspectors in Iraq, repeatedly attempting to water down the U.N. sanctions regime, and violating the sanctions themselves. And there is no reason to expect that, given half a chance, they will behave any better this time--particularly in light of France's words and Russia's deeds last week, when Paris vituperatively condemned the U.S. invasion and news emerged that Moscow has been shipping military equipment to Saddam. The prospect of a national government rigging a multilateral operation for its own purposes is hardly without precedent. In Bosnia, French representatives repeatedly thwarted U.S. attempts to capture war criminals such as Radovan Karadzic by alerting them beforehand, and, in Kosovo, they even passed along NATO military secrets to the Serbs. In Iraq, too, Chirac's opposition to "giving the American and British belligerents the right to administer Iraq," as he put it last week, plainly suggests that, having failed to prevent an American-led war, France intends to subvert an American-led peace.

The irony is that even the Bush team's hawks do not envision the administration of postwar Iraq being a wholly American enterprise. On the contrary, they hope to cede political control as quickly as possible to the Iraqis themselves--lest American soldiers come to be seen as oppressors rather than liberators and precisely because they fear the taint of imperialism. In their view, the debate is not about U.N. versus U.S. rule. It is about U.N. versus Iraqi rule. And, like Iraq's democratic exiles, Pentagon and White House officials believe that democracy stands a better chance of flourishing in Iraq absent a cadre of political administrators from East 42nd Street.

Hence, the Bush team's dilemma: In Iraq, the White House desperately wants the U.N.'s humanitarian assistance, but it just as desperately wants to sidestep its political assistance. To this end, the administration's postwar plans draw some fairly sharp distinctions--between Iraq's security, which it aims to maintain via the U.S. military; Iraq's political arena, where the United States quickly hopes to empower Iraqis themselves; and the task of humanitarian aid and reconstruction, which Washington hopes to accomplish through a combination of Iraqi oil revenues, nongovernmental organizations, U.S. aid, and the United Nations. But drawing a clear distinction between the U.N.'s political and humanitarian roles--a distinction the Europeans are keen to muddle--may not be so easy. Acknowledging this, the Bush administration may now offer two separate U.N. resolutions, one governing Iraq's humanitarian needs and the other essentially approving a U.S.-British military occupation. Alas, the Europeans probably won't settle for anything less than a resolution that fully inserts them into Iraq's political life. Then again, they're not the ones fighting this war.

This article originally ran in the April 7, 2003, issue of the magazine.