The United Nations Strategy as a Resolution of the Iraq Crisis
The United States has failed militarily in Iraq, and the situation there is deteriorating rapidly. A protracted guerrilla war is increasingly becoming an unconventional civil war. The US can mount operations against infiltrators on the Syrian border, but cannot permanently close off those borders. The US can prevent set piece battles from being fought by militias. It cannot prevent night-time raids. Seven bodies showed up Sunday in East Baghdad, executed. They were almost certainly victims of this shadowy sectarian war.
Eighty-two Iraqi parliamentarians have sent a letter to the speaker of the house demanding that the United States withdraw its troops from Iraq. Some of the leaders of this movement come from the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition of religious Shiite parties that has a majority of the 275 seats. Their demand is still that of a (sizeable) minority and has not been endorsed by Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari. The demand will certainly come from an ever greater number of parliamentarians as time goes on. At the moment, most Iraqi politicians already wish the US would leave, but are afraid that the guerrilla movement would kill them without US protection.
As its allies draw down their forces in the next few months, the US looks increasingly as though it is going it alone in Iraq. As a unilateral power there, it lacks legitimacy. It is not going to be able to stay in that country, and will not be given permanent bases there by an elected Iraqi government.
The United States will eventually have to go to the United Nations and request that it send a peace-enforcing mission to Iraq, as the US military withdraws. The relevant model is the UNTAC experience in Cambodia, which, while it had substantial flaws, was also a relative success. In the long term, perhaps 5-10 years, the Iraqi government may develop its own military that could keep order. That development is far enough off, however, that there is likely to be a significant gap between the time the US leaves and the time the Iraqis can fend for themselves.
A US withdrawal without a United Nations replacement would risk throwing Iraq into civil war. Such a civil war, moreover, would very likely not remain restricted in its effects only to Iraqi soil. A civil war in Iraq would certainly lead to even more sabotage of petroleum production, reducing Iraq’s production from the current 1.5 million barrels a day to virtually nothing. If a civil war broke out that drew in Iran, the unrest could spread to Iran’s oil-rich Khuzistan province, which has a substantial Arab population, and which has seen political violence in recent months. The instability could also spread to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which is traditionally Shiite but dominated since 1913 by the anti-Shiite Wahhabis.
If the petroleum production of Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia was put offline by a vast regional conflict that involved substantial terrorism and sabotage, the price of oil would skyrocket. Only 80 million barrels of petroleum are typically produced daily in the world. Much of that is consumed by the producing country. What is special about the countries of the Gulf is that they have relatively small populations and little industry, and therefore export a great deal of their petroleum. Saudi Arabia produces 9 million barrels a day, and can do 11 in a pinch. Iran produces 4 million. Iraq could produce 3 million on a good day without sabotage. If nearly 20 percent of the world’s petroleum supply became unavailable, and given ever increasing demand in China and India and political instability in Venezuela and Nigeria, the price could rise so high that it would throw the world into a Second Great Depression.
The old dream of James Schlesinger and Henry Kissinger that the United States could in such an emergency simply occupy and secure the Saudi oil fields has been shown to be a dangerous fantasy. Petroleum is produced in a human security environment. Where the political structures are felt by a substantial portion of the population to be illegitimate, they can and will simply sabotage the petroleum pipelines and refineries.
The US cannot risk this scenario, which while a little unlikely, is entirely possible as a consequence of its withdrawal from an Iraq that it radically destabilized.
The United Nations force put into Iraq should be a peace-enforcing, not a peace-keeping, force. That is, its rules of engagement should allow robust military operations to prevent the parties from massacring one another, and UN troops should always be permitted to defend themselves resolutely if attacked. Further, the United States should lend the United Nations forces close air support upon their request.
Moreover, the UN must at the same time enter into serious negotiations with the warring parties (Kurds, Shiites, Sunni Arabs) to seek a political settlement.
“It is a matter of record that it is not possible to have successful peacekeeping without a determined and successful peace process. Peacekeeping and peace-building activities are not self-sustainable, they have to be nurtured by a process of negotiations, or peacemaking, during which the parties to the conflict are made to redefine their interests and develop a commitment to a political settlement. The fact that most successful missions in the last decade, or even the partially successful ones – Namibia, El Salvador, Cambodia and Mozambique – were the result of years of negotiations, in which many third-party international actors, including the USA, participated, is no accident Although the wars in these areas went on for a long time, they illustrate that it is better to take the time to get the details of a settlement right, than to initiate a peacekeeping process that is flawed in its concept and content, as so glaringly made apparent in the inadequately planned and prepared United Nations deployment in the former Yugoslavia and Somalia. It takes firm political resolve and unified concerted action from outside actors to make the parties to the conflict come to terms with one another, and work towards a negotiated settlement.”
All Iraqis would see the United Nations as having more legitimacy than the United States. The UN would be much more likely to be able to negotiate a settlement among the Sunnis and Shiites than is the US. And, the world has more troops than the US does. (The Europeans are over-stretched, so the force would mainly come from the global South. Iraq does not want neighbors involved, so South and Southeast Asia seem likely providers of troops.)
Would the Iraqi government accept a United Nations military mission? Almost certainly. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has often attempted to involve the UN, and would welcome such a development. The Sunni Arabs would also much prefer to deal with the UN than with the US.
Would the United Nations be willing to take it on? It would be a very hard sell. But remember that if the members of the military mission succeeded, they would have gained enormous good will from the Iraqi government, which would soon be able to pump 5 million barrels of petroleum a day. That is, participation could be worth billions in future contracts. The US could also provide substantial incentives. For countries like Pakistan, India, and Malaysia, such benefits could prove decisive.
Would the Americans be willing to cede Iraq to the blue helmets? It is not impossible. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appears to want to draw down US troop strength in Iraq on a fairly short timetable, and even he must realize the need for a replacement. Of course, the Bush administration may well resist this move right to the end. But that makes this plan an ideal platform for the Democratic Party in 2006 and 2008. Instead of Kerry’s vague multilateralism, let us specify an UNTAC-like mission for the UN. The entire world depends on Gulf petroleum; the entire world should step up to ensure security for Iraq and the region. The US will continue to have to bear a significant share of the costs, but these would become bearable if several allies shared them.
As recently as the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower still saw the United Nations as a noble project eseential to the welfare of the United States, and he denounced the 1956 invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel for endangering the UN ideal. Ironically, the Bush administration’s attempt to do a unilateral end run around the United Nations could afford the American Left the opportunity to make international cooperation and international law popular again with the US public. The alternative for Americans is to continue to squander blood and treasure on a task too big for one country, even the world’s sole superpower.