UNcooperative




A year after President Bush tried, and failed, to get United Nations backing for his push for war, he’s back at the General Assembly to ask for help with America’s occupation of Iraq. But don’t expect him to ask very nicely.

The president’s Tuesday speech, described to the New York Times by officials who drafted it, as “unyielding,” will make no apology for invading Iraq without the U.N.’s say-so, and will (big surprise) be light on admissions of miscalcuation and poor planning. What it will contain is a request for international help, military and financial, to keep a lid on Iraq and fund reconstruction, and a call to the U.N. to coordinate efforts to curb nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.

The White House is still insisting that while the U.N. has a role in rebuilding Iraq, the U.S. is in no rush to hand over significant power. Bush said Monday that the U.S. is neither inclined nor obliged to give the U.N. a larger role in Iraq — at least not for the time being:

“I’m not so sure we have to [give the U.N. a larger role], for starters…But secondly, I do think it would be helpful to get the United Nations in to help write a constitution…I mean, they’re good at that. Or, perhaps when an election starts, they’ll oversee the election. That would be deemed a larger role.”

This is a start: At least the president now sees that the U.N. has some value, even if that stems from a belated recognition that the United States, acting alone, can’t simultaneously occupy and rebuild Iraq.

But winning U.N. help is necessarily going to involve some give and take, and the administration has show little willingness to give. France, for instance, is increasingly frustrated at America’s insistence on retaining full control in Iraq. Last Friday, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin outlined a framework for the immediate development of an Iraqi democracy, which Colin Powell dismissed as “totally unrealistic.” And in a Monday interview with the New York Times, Jacques Chirac, the French president, described his vision of a two-part plan to give Iraq back to the Iraqis. He explained: “There will be no concrete solution unless sovereignty is transferred to Iraq as quickly as possible.” There promises to be a lively discussion when President Bush meets with Chirac and Germany’s chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder after his speech at the U.N. today.

Opposition from France and Germany are nothing new. But even Bush ally Tony Blair now concedes the need for changes in the way Iraq is managed. The three leaders emerged from a weekend summit agreeing in principle that the more Iraqi control in Iraq the better, with Blair saying power should be transferred to Iraqi civilian authorities “as quickly as possible.”

The Bush administration covets support in the increasingly hostile Arab world, but that support isn’t likely unless the U.S. relinquishes meaningful power in Iraq. On Monday Syria — under increasing heat from the Bush administration — offered to send peacekeepers to Iraq, if the United States agrees to replace U.S. troops with U.N. peacekeepers. Bouthaina Shaaban, Syria’s minister of expatriates, told the Associated Press:

“Syria would be ready to send troops to Iraq only after the United Nations has the final say in Iraq and if a deadline for the American withdrawal is put…Then the Arab League, including Syria, would review an Arab contribution to rebuilding Iraq.”

Relations between the White House and the Middle East might improve with the support of the Arab league, but Bush clearly isn’t interested if it requires giving away too much power, too quickly (as he sees it). All players seem to realize that compromise is the key to moving forward in this messy war, but the White House can’t bring itself to make the necessary concessions.

David Korn of the Nation notes that the president, having gone to war, over U.N. objections and based on evidence that’s still MIA, can hardly expect a warm reception from the General Assembly.

“Certainly, the UN had good reason to worry about Hussein and WMDs. But Bush overstated the case and even misrepresented the UN’s own work in this area. Now, a year later, he returns to the international body, hoping to persuade its members to join his Iraq project as junior partners. Already, other nations are complaining that Bush is pressing them to send money and troops but is not willing to share economic, political, and military responsibility. Bush may have to offer concessions and make promises to get these allies aboard. If he has a hard time winning their trust, he will only have himself to blame.”

Hence, perhaps, the expected emphasis on nuclear proliferation. Bush needs to make the case that, contrary to appearances, all nations are in this together, equally threatened by “rogue” states like Iran and Syria (and, who knows? Saudi Arabia) having nukes. He’s expected to call nuclear proliferation a serious challenge to the United Nations — not just the U.S. He’ll focus on his Proliferation Security Initiative, a measure that is designed to interdict nuclear supplies crossing borders.

Adressing Iran’s nuclear status is important as the International Atomic Energy Agency’s October 31 deadline for inspector access draws near. Just this weekend Iran provocatively flexed its military muscles by parading six medium-range missiles. Military experts believe that these missiles could reach American bases in the Gulf, as well as Israel. President Mohammad Khatami justified the exhibition:

“We are opposed to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons but we insist on our absolute right to be powerful in the scientific and technological arena.”

The Bush administration has so consistently alienated other nations with its go-it-alone foreign policy that it’s hard to imagine them being receptive now, whether that means opening their wallets for the Iraq effort or clamping down on nuclear proliferation. Unless, that is Washington shows a willingness to compromise. With a second attack on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on Monday, and Iran continuing to blow off the IAEA, this is no time for President Bush to be trumpeting U.S. “success” in Iraq, or demanding international cooperation without giving anything in return. This time, something’s got to give.