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When an Identity Crisis Goes Global

August 24, 2003|Paula R. Newberg | Paula R. Newberg is an international consultant who works with countries in conflict and transition.

WASHINGTON — When the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad was hit by a truck bomb Tuesday, killing the United Nations' top diplomat in the country, it was not just Iraq's reconstruction and the U.S. occupation that were put at greater risk. The terrorist attack also raised questions about who and what the United Nations stands for, and why anyone would blame it for U.S. foreign policy.

In no period since the U.N.'s creation has the international body's endurance and diplomatic agility been more strained than in the last two years. Fresh from turmoil in Rwanda, East Timor and the Balkans, the U.N. stands alongside the beleaguered peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq and now faces new responsibilities in Liberia. But as its role keeps changing, its own security is increasingly jeopardized.

Take Afghanistan. In the weeks following the U.S.-led coalition's fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, the U.N. facilitated an agreement that led, almost miraculously, to the first peaceful installation of a government in Kabul in decades. But it wasn't granted a formal trusteeship of Afghanistan, which might have separated reconstruction from divisive politics. The war's victors wanted to govern, and the U.N. wanted them to have the right to do so. So it entered into a curious partnership with a weak and poor interim Afghan government, U.S.-led coalition forces and the Bush administration.

Neither the Afghan government nor the United Nations can override the coalition's military and security prerogatives, which often involve trampling people's rights. The interests of Afghanistan and the U.S. are not wholly at odds, but their priorities differ. For Washington and now for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which will direct security operations, a stable Afghanistan is a victory against terrorism; for Afghans, a stable country is the primary goal. In all this, the U.N. is loyal cheerleader, occasional standard-setter and cautious umpire. But when rights are violated, violence increases, and the United Nations can't do anything about it. As a result, many Afghans see the U.S. and the U.N. through the same weary eyes, without distinguishing between them.

Iraq, sadly, vindicates this view. Most U.N. members sat out the Iraq war. Even before the worst fighting ended, some insisted that the world body help rebuild Iraq as a matter of principle and to ensure stability in the region. The U.N. has thus begun to work in and around Iraq's gutted political environment. Even as violence erupts around it, the U.N. seeks footholds to assist Iraq's recovery and offers nuance to ideas of development, democracy and the rule of law.

The U.S. was initially reluctant to include the U.N. in Iraq. But in the aftermath of the Baghdad bombing, the U.S. is tarnishing the organization as it now embraces it. In calling the attack on the U.N. headquarters "an attack on the United States," former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke erased the critical distinction between Washington and an international community that has repeatedly criticized American actions. And when L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. top administrator in Iraq, called the incident an attempt to "sabotage nation-building," he bolstered those who believe that Iraq was already a nation before the U.S. arrived and now needs to be returned to its people.

When the question of intervention in Iraq resurfaced two years ago, many observers argued that the U.N. should stay out if it couldn't set the terms of its involvement. Others now think that the U.N. can smooth the rough edges of U.S. force by finding ways for Iraqis to help run their own reconstruction. Many cynically suspect that the U.N. will be stuck with Iraq when U.S. patience runs out.

All these views may be true. All share the suspicion that common cause between the U.S. and the U.N. creates common enemies -- and the Baghdad bombing may have proved them right. Once again, the U.N. is working with a superpower whose policies contradict the views of many of its members. Once again, U.S. prerogatives seem to have come perilously close to overtaking the U.N.'s human rights mandate. And once again, skeptics in Iraq and elsewhere, whether peacefully or violently inclined, see little difference between those who wage war and those who profess peace.

These perceptions cast a shadow over the U.N.'s new trusteeship role in Liberia as that country emerges from an avaricious dictatorship. It's not because trusteeship is bad but because it risks being incomplete. The U.S. has decided that Liberia, less important to its security than Iraq, is too troublesome to ignore -- so the U.N. is now in charge of fixing it. This may satisfy African states whose soldiers will keep the peace, but if the U.S. has left Liberia to the U.N., it's reasonable to fear that both the U.N. and Liberia will soon be left wanting.

This week, the U.S. will again ask the U.N. to share its burdens in Iraq. Fearful of further instability, anxious member states may increase their assistance. They're likely to want to enlarge the U.N.'s role as well. If the U.S. imprudently refuses to cede control, and pushes the U.N. to the periphery once again, everyone will lose -- and the lesson of last week's tragedy will have been lost.

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