The Magazine

Help Not Wanted

From the August 18, 2003 issue: European and U.N. political involvement will harm Iraqi democracy.

Aug 18, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 46 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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THE ORGANIZING PRINCIPLE behind the American occupation of Iraq, so advises a chorus of influential voices, ought to be the foreign policy equivalent of financially syndicating risk. America's budget deficit is too big, the costs of administering and reconstructing Iraq too high, and the killing of U.S. soldiers in the country too frequent for the United States to bear alone the burden of transforming Iraq into a stable, democratic country. A recent post-conflict reconstruction report issued under the auspices of the Center for Strategic and International Studies asserts that "the scope of the challenges, the financial requirements, and rising anti-Americanism in parts of Iraq argue for a new coalition that includes countries and organizations beyond the original war-fighting coalition."

Delaware's Senator Joseph Biden, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, wants to see "French, German, . . . Turkish patches on [soldiers'] arms sitting on the street corners, standing there in Iraq" doing common duty and giving the United States "legitimacy as well as some physical cover." "Our troops are stretched very thin," echoes Carl Levin of Michigan, the senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, adding, "We must end the feud with Germany and France and with the United Nations." Nebraska's Republican senator, Chuck Hagel, desperately wants to see "more United Nations involvement and more Arab involvement [in Iraq]. Time is not on our side. Every day we are losing ground." And Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry, the junior senator from Massachusetts, is dismayed at the unilateralist "hubris" of the Bush administration. "We need to internationalize this. We need to do it now, and we need to do it openly, and we need to do it in order to defuse the [Iraqi] sense of occupation and protect the troops."

Irrespective of whether we should seek to have Europeans, Pakistanis, or Indians dying with or in lieu of Americans, irrespective of whether murderous hard-core Baathists and Sunni fundamentalists would feel less "occupied" and less murderous seeing Turks in their country, and irrespective of whether the economically stressed, antiwar countries of the European Union would actually give meaningful financial aid to Iraq, the idea of a "new coalition" to oversee the reconstruction of Iraq is entirely unwise. It would probably encourage the worst political and cultural tendencies among Iraqis, even among those who are profoundly pro-Western. It could easily send a signal throughout the Middle East and beyond that the Bush administration doesn't have the stomach to transform Iraq, let alone the region.

In the Muslim Middle East, in the age of bin Ladenism, where the rulers and the ruled are constantly assessing American strength and purpose, multilateralism, when it is so evidently cover for a lack of patience and fortitude, is never a virtue. However long the United States stays in Iraq, the cost in American lives and dollars will likely go up, not down, the more we "internationalize" the occupation. The men who are killing U.S. soldiers, and other foreigners, want to drive the United States and other Westerners out of the country. When Washington talks about the need to share the pain, what these men hear is that America wants to run. And however commendable may be the idea of a joint American-European project in the Middle East through which we can lessen the rancor between us, greater European participation in Iraq's reconstruction is much more likely to fray U.S.-European relations than enhance them. It will be hard to blame the Iraqis for the ensuing troubles. It's not their fault if Washington doesn't read Islamic history.

For the last 300 years in the Middle East, ever since the Ottomans discovered their severe and ever-increasing military inferiority vis-à-vis the West, Muslims have tried to play one Westerner off against another. Englishmen against Frenchmen, Frenchmen against Austrians, Englishmen against Russians, Germans against everybody, Soviets against Americans, and now, inshallah, the European Union against the United States. If the Bush administration cedes some political control in Iraq to the United Nations in an effort to win greater international assistance, it will likely open up a Pandora's box of competing Iraqi interests at a time when Washington wants, above all else, to ensure that Iraqis cooperate as cohesively and as expeditiously as possible, with each other and with us. Even though the United States will surely remain the predominant occupation force in Iraq--and will unquestionably bear the responsibility for failure regardless of any new "coalition"--the possibilities for serious Iraqi (or European) mischief could increase significantly if the United Nations, French, Germans, or Russians started more aggressively critiquing American actions.