The Magazine

U.N. Go Home

From the April 14, 2003 issue: As it was in Kosovo, the "international community" is a threat to postwar Iraq.

Apr 14, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 30 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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THE WAR FOR IRAQ'S LIBERATION began on March19. The fourth anniversary of the NATO intervention in Kosovo was March24. Kosovar Albanians, a majority of whom are Muslims, lead the Islamic world in their enthusiasm for America. But they hate the United Nations and the European meddlers in whose hands their fate was largely left after NATO's bombing ended. And Kosovar journalists are now warning the Iraqis of the fate that might await them if the U.N. is entrusted with their country's reconstruction.

My own experiences in Kosovo after the NATO intervention may shed some light on the feelings of these journalists. I remember one night in particular, in the capital, Prishtina, in July 2000. Late in the evening, I had gone to a favorite café that served roast chicken. I had just finished my meal when the electric power went off throughout the province--a frequent occurrence. A groan swept through the little restaurant, because the place had no gasoline generator, and without power it couldn't cook, or serve food, or make coffee, or even get its dishes washed. Candles were lit on the patio, and a few hardy souls--Albanians, not foreigners--sat and smoked, drinking wine and brandy. The owner and waiters came out and joined them.

I got up and began making my way home, through the ancient Ottoman streets, with no light to guide me. I knew the town pretty well, and felt safe there; my only real worries were the potholes, other unseen obstacles, and the task of getting up the steps of my apartment building without tripping. My leg still hurt from an incident on another night without power, when I had thought something down in the darkness, pressing against my leg, would give way, and found out the hard way that it was a steel stanchion; I'd come away with deep cuts, and limped for a month.

Once I got home, there would be nothing to do; I had learned that one can't really read by candlelight, and I had no oil lamp. My television wouldn't work, I couldn't check e-mail or otherwise use my computer, and couldn't even listen to music. Like the restaurant I had just left, I had no generator. I wondered if the water would also shut down, leaving the toilets unflushed. I thought about the morning, and wondered whether there would be hot water, which depended on the power supply. I could wash my face and shave using bottled water. But without power I couldn't bathe, make coffee, or watch the news before heading off to my job. And there would be no air conditioning, not even an electric fan, in the oppressive summer heat.

Just then I passed the headquarters of UNMIK, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo. The building, a skyscraper formerly occupied by a successful Yugoslav bank, was ablaze with light. All the windows shone, as if the bureaucrats within were working late. Of course, I knew almost nobody was there; by then they would have headed home to apartments better equipped than mine, where they might even have generators. The structure stood out in the darkness, a symbol of U.N. power in the wartorn province. And it struck me that the contrast between the burning lights and the surrounding darkness was also a symbol--of the gap between the two worlds in the occupied territory, the world of the international authorities and the world of the people. It fleetingly occurred to me that U.N. officials might actually have ordered the lights kept on to taunt the Kosovars with their might--but of course that couldn't be.

Yet in Kosovo, the thought was not necessarily paranoid. True, people living in such conditions might easily experience a mild disorientation, as the power cuts and the filth imposed by unreliable water supplies took their toll. But it was also the case that jaundiced thoughts were a normal concomitant of life under the U.N. and its sister agencies in the "reconstruction" of Kosovo. Along with the U.N., the European Union (E.U.) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) made up the "Four Pillars" charged with the healing of Kosovo: The U.N. handled the First Pillar, police and justice, and the second, civil administration, while the E.U. took charge of economic reform, and the OSCE handled democratization and the formation of institutions.

The result has been a wholesale disaster, which, if it can serve for anything, must be taken as a textbook illustration of how not to proceed in postwar Iraq. The acronym UNMIK closely resembles the Albanian word anmik, which happens to mean enemy, and it was not long before this linguistic parallelism became a source of grim humor among Kosovar Albanians. Today, the leading Kosovar journalists fill their newspapers with commentaries on the bitter lessons of "reconstruction" by the U.N., the E.U., the OSCE, and their handmaiden, the "humanitarian mafia."