Late appeal for U.N. help in Iraq criticized

News & Observer Washington BureauApril 18, 2004 

WASHINGTON -- Facing an unexpected security crisis in Iraq little more than two months before ceding political control to the Iraqis, President Bush has turned for help to an institution that has hardly been his favorite instrument of American foreign policy.

The United Nations, which Bush has often mocked in campaign speeches, has suddenly become the centerpiece of the president's new strategy for righting his flagging nation-building attempt in Iraq.

With the administration stymied in its efforts to assemble an Iraqi interim government capable of assuming power by July 1, Bush is asking the United Nations, and its diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, to take the lead in crafting a solution.

"We welcome the proposals presented by the U.N. Special Envoy Brahimi," Bush said at a news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Friday. "He's identified a way forward to establishing an interim government that is broadly acceptable to the Iraqi people."

The United Nations, however, is taking the task with a sense of foreboding, The New York Times reported.

"There is a mixture of vindication on the one hand and great apprehension on the other," Edward Mortimer, a senior aide to Secretary-General Kofi Annan, told The Times. Mortimer contrasted Bush's calls for assistance to the disparagement he said the United Nations had become used to from the administration.

"It's quite nice when you've been generally dissed about your irrelevancy and then suddenly have people coming on bended knee and saying, 'We need you to come back,' " he said.

"On the other hand," he continued, "it's quite unnerving to feel you're being projected into a very violent and volatile situation where you might be regarded as an agent or faithful servant of a power that has incurred great hostility."

Widespread appeals

Brahimi's initiative is but one example of the administration's urgent new bid to win international cooperation for quelling the violence in Iraq and putting the nation on a road to self-government.

The United States and Great Britain also will seek a U.N. resolution governing the transfer of power and subsequent schedule for future elections in Iraq. Additionally, administration officials are soliciting help from Syria and other Arab countries, and they are exploring an expanded military role for NATO in Iraq.

The new pitch for international cooperation is an approach long pushed by Bush critics, who have criticized him for asserting, as he did in the State of the Union address, that the United States "will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country."

Bush's likely opponent in this year's presidential race, Democratic Sen. John Kerry, has argued that Bush's inability to marshal greater international support has been his chief failing in Iraq.

Other critics say the president's new push for global involvement in Iraq may have come too late.

"Never has it been clearer that America needs international support and engagement in Iraq," said Ivo Daalder, a former foreign policy official in the Clinton administration. "And never has it been less likely that it will get that."

Daalder, now a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the administration's lack of planning for an Iraq occupation, combined with its delay in seeking international help, makes it unlikely that foreign governments will rush to respond. "There is a fear of Iraq thoroughly unraveling," he said. "And there is a glee that an arrogant superpower may, in fact, be cut down to size."

A way to ease out

According to the New York Times, Bush's decision to make the United Nations a "vital" part of the Iraq process provoked a bitter fight within the administration earlier this year, with Vice President Dick Cheney and others opposing the move.

Now, though, the key players of the Bush administration, from Secretary of State Colin Powell to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are acknowledging that the United Nations will take the lead in crafting a political solution in Iraq.

On a day last week in which Rumsfeld admitted that the war's progress has been more difficult than he imagined, the defense secretary said "the odds favor" that it will be Brahimi's proposal that governs the hand-over.

Administration officials downplay the emergence of the United Nations as the lead political agency in Iraq, saying it's a natural progression as the United States eases away from a position of calling all the shots through the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Too late to help?

Under Brahimi's tentative plan, political power would be transferred to a caretaker government of bureaucrats that now lead Iraq's various government ministries. An interim president and prime minister would be named, along with a consultative national assembly.

Some analysts have praised the proposal because it gives power to the Iraqis already running some government departments.

Others say the president has waited dangerously long to seek stronger international support.

With the death toll rising rapidly this month, leaders in Spain, Portugal and Poland all have hinted that they might withdraw their troops if the security situation in Iraq worsens. Annan, the U.N.'s secretary-general, also suggested that the January elections may not be held on schedule.

In a speech on Iraq last week, Sen. Joe Biden, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said Bush's failure to reach out has cost the United States the assistance of "tens of thousands of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Turks ... who could have changed the dynamic on the ground in so many ways."

But he and most other administration critics said it wasn't too late to turn things around in Iraq.

Joe Nye, dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, said bestowing power on the United Nations would advance the U.S. cause by "creating legitimacy" for its campaign. If the United States could recruit one or more Arab League nations to help police the country, "that would make a huge difference," he said.

Bush last week repeatedly exhorted Americans to show patience, promising that a successful outcome would advance the cause of peace throughout the Middle East. But for the first time, he also acknowledged that the U.S. effort has run into trouble, and he and Rumsfeld appeared to be preparing Americans for difficult times ahead.

"It's a tough road and it's a bumpy road," Rumsfeld said. "And I'll be honest, it's an uncertain road."

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