DON'T GET THE WRONG IDEA about the American effort to get the United Nations back in Iraq. It's not a bid to give the United Nations a dominant role in the rebuilding of Iraq--far from it. True, Coalition Provisional Authority chief Paul Bremer did push hard--and successfully--last week to persuade the Iraqi Governing Council to invite the United Nations to return. But for now the United Nations will only advise on the shape of the interim government which will take control on June 30, when the CPA relinquishes sovereignty, and on the planning for the democratic election of a permanent Iraqi government in January 2005.
Even in that limited role, can the United Nations really be helpful in promoting American policies in Iraq? The answer is yes. There's a not-so-hidden agenda. In the view of Bremer and top Bush administration officials, the United Nations can bestow legitimacy on both the interim government and the election. And this spring the administration intends to seek a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the steps culminating in the January election.
This amounts to the United States exploiting the United Nations, rather than the other way around; America's using the United Nations for its own purposes, not following a policy set by the United Nations. It follows the example of the first President Bush, who ran the Persian Gulf war nominally under the auspices of the United Nations in 1991. He found the United Nations was a convenient vehicle for pursuing an aggressive American foreign policy against Saddam Hussein.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH, with a much smaller alliance, toppled Saddam last April--but without the approval of the U.N. Security Council, which had balked at enforcing Saddam's multiple violations of its resolutions.
Still, the United Nations had an active office here, until it closed last August after a suicide bomber killed 22 people there. Since then Bremer has frequently said he wants the United Nations to return in a limited, humanitarian role. United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi did just that in January in order to evaluate the feasibility of the Shia demand for a democratic election before the turnover of sovereignty on June. Brahimi concluded it wasn't feasible, which angered Shia leaders (and pleased Bremer). The Shia hinted that Brahimi was not an honest broker because he's a Sunni Muslim.
Now Bremer has convinced the Shia and others on the Iraqi Governing Council that they need the United Nations and Brahimi again, this time to break the impasse on the form of the interim government and establish a firm date for the democratic election. Bob Blackwill, an influential official on the White House staff, came to Baghdad to bolster Bremer.
To the Shia, his argument was simple. They want the U.N. resolution to lock in the date of the democratic election. They won't get that, Bremer told them, if they blow off Brahimi. Bremer met one-on-one with several IGC members, including Ahmmad Chalabi, a secular Shia who has fallen out of favor with Bremer and the Bush administration. The Shia have an understandable interest in a free election. They constitute a majority of Iraqis.
So where does that leave the United States in Iraq today? The United Nations will join the effort to decide the contours of the interim government and help pave the way for free elections. But the precise shape doesn't matter much because the interim administration will last only six or seven months. And the exact date of the democratic election is less important than the fact there will be one. What matters is continued progress toward the turnover and a democratic Iraq with legitimacy. If the United Nations can contribute to that, the Bush-Bremer policy is to bring them onboard.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.