Back to the UN, again

Can the United Nations reconstruct itself through rebuilding Iraq?

Josie Appleton

Topics World

After the US-led coalition bypassed the United Nations (UN) to launch an attack in Iraq, many predicted the demise of the institution. President George W Bush warned that the UN risked ‘irrelevance’ if it failed to endorse the US resolution. France’s belligerent veto threats seemed to signal its willingness to force grievous splits in the Security Council.

Yet now, only weeks later, the UN is back in the game. Both the Americans and Europeans have signalled their desire to give the UN an important role in post-war Iraq – though there are ongoing disputes about the nature and degree of this role. A meeting of NATO and European foreign ministers was said to be ‘calm and without acrimony’ (1), with all parties looking to cooperate and build consensus around reconstructing Iraq.

All sides are turning back to an institution that they seemed to spurn. This indicates a desire to preserve the old mechanisms of the international order, even as these have been cast into disrepute. It seems that no country is prepared to face a world where nation states deal with each other on a face-to-face, ad hoc basis. The UN appears to offer stability and consensus – a forum for negotiation, and a collective banner under which states can act.

America’s recent experience of the UN has not been positive. The endless meetings and reports, the constant rebuttals by members of the Security Council…the UN stalled and frustrated the USA, even humiliated it. The general assumption was that Washington’s hawks wouldn’t allow the UN anywhere near a post-war Iraq. UK prime minister Tony Blair’s visit to Camp David in which he put the case for a UN role was reported as a failure.

No doubt some in the American administration are firmly opposed to UN involvement – yet others are now making more positive noises. After a meeting with President Bush, Alexander Downer, the Australian minister for foreign affairs, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on 2 April: ‘ I had been told the UN role…had been sidelined at least by some people in Washington but there’s been a pretty positive reception to my representations here from everybody I’ve met, from the President downwards’ (2). ‘The idea of the United Nations special representative or special coordinator is one they feel comfortable with’, said Downer (3).

On 3 April, the US House of Representatives agreed that no money from federal contracts to reconstruct Iraq should go to companies from France, Germany, Russia or Syria – the members of the UN Security Council that had opposed the war. But as the New York Times reported, the State Department had sent a letter to the House opposing the amendment, arguing that ‘it would undermine its effort to build an international coalition to reconstruct Iraq’ (4).

And in the meeting with NATO representatives, Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated that ‘we all understand the UN must play a role, but the nature remains to be seen’ (5). In an interview with French daily newspaper Le Figaro, Powell elaborated: ‘The desirable role for the United Nations must be worked out. It should administer humanitarian aid and give its blessing to the temporary authority that will be appointed.’ (6).

Powell met with anti-war ministers Dominique de Villepin from France, and Joschka Fischer from Germany – figures who had so snubbed him only weeks ago. Some diplomats began cheerful discussions of unity and reconciliation. Greek foreign minister George Papandreou, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said that ‘We see a consensus emerging’ – ‘The importance we place on the United Nations role is recognised by the United States’. NATO secretary general George Robertson spoke of ‘a growing consensus in the future’ (7).

France and Germany have also made recent about-turns back to the table. For these countries to be involved in reconstruction would seem to legitimise the war that they had so trenchantly opposed. The 29 March edition of The Economist reported that French president Jacques Chirac had threatened to use his veto to prevent America and Britain from securing a peace arrangement to their liking through the UN (8).

And the German foreign minister seemed set up for a post-war reckoning when he told Der Spiegel that ‘A world order in which the superpower decides on military strikes based only on its own national interest simply cannot work’. The German development minister cast doubt on post-war cooperation, saying that: ‘Those that do the damage carry the main burden for reconstruction.’ (9)

But both leaders seem to now be doing all they can to mend divisions and gain a role for their countries in reconstruction. The French defence minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, said on a visit to Macedonia – where French, American and British soldiers are working side by side – that ‘our differences are on the way to being mended’. She tried to smooth over previous disagreements: ‘We agreed on the aim: disarmament of Iraq; we disagreed on the calendar. Now we will reach agreement again on the post-war objectives of reconstructing the country.’ (10) German chancellor Gerhard Schröder on 3 April argued forcefully that: ‘After this war, the United Nations must play the central role as far as the future of Iraq is concerned.’ (11)

This move back into the UN fold is the sign of conservatism on the part of national elites – ultimately, no Western power looks prepared to dispense with the security blanket of the Security Council. They would rather take cover for their international interventions under a collective banner than stand accountable for them on their own.

The last thing that the USA wants, for example, is to look like an imperialist power, slotting its favourite generals into the new Iraqi administration. America, as we keep hearing, wants its forces to be seen as ‘liberators’ not ‘conquerors’. America may also be reluctant to bear the full responsibility for post-war Iraq – who knows what might go wrong? Giving the UN a role could soothe anti-American tempers and offload some of the burden of responsibility.

And the last thing that the French and German elites would want is to be left out in the anti-war cold, at a time when the world’s attention is focused on Iraq. At the moment, Iraq is where it’s at; anybody who’s anybody is likely to want to have their hand in the post-war arrangements. The European Union’s Javier Solana told Newsnight on 3 April that ‘everybody should have the opportunity to participate’ in the rebuilding process.

The move back to the UN also signals that the splits weren’t that substantial to begin with. It really was a dispute about ‘the calendar’, as the French defence minister indicated. From the beginning France and Germany agreed that Saddam was a problem and should be sorted out – the question was when, and how. There is no ideological split, such as that which divided the world during the Cold War. And it is questionable how much France or Germany really want to strike out as opposing powers to the USA.

But these moves to bring the UN back in are unlikely to help Iraq – or, for that matter, the Western alliance.

Many argue that a post-war Iraq supervised by the UN would somehow be more democratic or better off than one run by the USA. ‘UN role or UN rule?’, was the question put in a UK Guardian editorial, firmly arguing for the latter (12).

The evidence in Iraq suggests otherwise. After all, it is the UN that has been slowly strangling Iraq under sanctions for more than a decade, and rubber-stamping numerous other incursions into its sovereignty. A UN-supervised administration is unlikely to be received with cheers by the Iraqi people. As Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi opposition group the Iraqi National Congress argued: ‘The UN’s record on Iraq had been abysmal and the Iraqi people have little confidence in the UN.’ (13) No doubt Chalabi has his own motivations here, but he has a point.

And UN control over Iraq is no closer to popular sovereignty than US rule. In fact, in some ways it is worse: at least the US government is subject to some kind of direct popular pressure from the American people (though not, however, the Iraqi people). The actions of the American government would be likely to be subject to a higher degree of scrutiny than those of UN bureaucrats. The UN has been quietly running what are effectively international protectorates in places like Kosovo and East Timor for years without being subject to much questioning or criticism, or being accountable to the citizens of these states.

Already, we have seen the creeping of UN control over Iraq. On 28 March, the UN Security Council voted to transfer responsibility for the distribution of food and medicine in central and southern Iraq from the Baghdad government to the UN Secretary General (14). That UN officials are now deciding which Iraqis get what resources should be no cause for celebration.

Also questionable is the idea that UN supervision of a post-war Iraq will heal the cracks in the Security Council. An article in The Economist reports that British officials favour a UN role as ‘a way of pulling estranged allies together’ (15), while UN chief Kofi Annan has spoken of the Security Council rediscovering a ‘unity of purpose’ in the reconstruction of post-war Iraq (16). Having split the Security Council, goes the argument, Iraq could help draw it back together again.

In reality, the task of rebuilding and organising a Middle Eastern country is unlikely to focus the Western alliance and give it a new sense of purpose. The divisions within the Western alliance were not about Iraq in the first place: France and Germany’s stalling of American war plans was more about their desire to undermine American dominance than it was about their distinct views about the war. By the same count, Western divisions cannot be resolved through Iraq, either.

Already, there are squabbles and disputes about the shape of a post-war Iraq within the US administration itself. For example, deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz has nominated Ahmed Chalabi to a key advisory post, a move that has been supported by the Pentagon but opposed by the State Department and the CIA (17). That the USA cannot agree at this early stage suggests that bringing in the UN will only result in a blossoming of disputes.

So at a time when everyone seems to be bringing the UN back in to Iraq, it might be better to argue for keeping the UN well out.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) ‘Europe and US split on postwar plan for Iraq’, The Times, 4 April 2003

(2) Downer discusses UN involvement in post-war Iraq, 2 April 2003

(3) US and EU clash over UN Iraq role, Guardian, 3 April 2003

(4) House and Senate Approve Bush’s Wartime Spending Request, New York Times, 4 April 2003

(5) ‘Europe and US split on postwar plan for Iraq’, The Times, 4 April 2003

(6) Powell non-committal as Europe demands UN Iraq role, Gulf News, 4 April 2003

(7) Powell non-committal as Europe demands UN Iraq role, Gulf News, 4 April 2003

(8) ‘The reckoning’, The Economist, 29 March 2003

(9) ‘The reckoning’, The Economist, 29 March 2003
(10) French try to repair relationship with US, Guardian, 3 April 2003

(11) ‘Europe and US split on postwar plan for Iraq’, The Times, 4 April 2003
(12) UN rule or UN role?, Guardian, 3 April 2003

(13) UN too weak for major post-war role in Iraq: opposition leader , AFP, 27 March, on

(14) ‘Iraq threatens oil-for-food programme’, Financial Times, 31 March 2003

(15) ‘The reckoning’, The Economist, 29 March 2003

(16) U.N. council debates Iraq invasion, Washington Times, 26 March 2003

(17) Guardian, 2 April 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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