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Iraq: Analysts Question Whether U.S. Better Than UN At Nation Building

  • Andrew Tully

The United States says it wants coalition countries -- not the United Nations -- to play the central role in helping Iraqis establish a democracy after peace returns to their country. One top U.S. official cites Bosnia as an example of UN inefficiency in such projects. But some analysts told RFE/RL that Washington should not be so certain that Iraq is actually ready to embrace democracy.

Washington, 14 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Some American analysts question the U.S. assertion that it is more capable than the United Nations of bringing democracy to Iraq.

Deputy U.S. Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told a congressional hearing on 10 April that he believes the UN's record on what has become known as "nation building" has been unsatisfactory.

U.S. President George W. Bush and several top aides have said the United Nations will have an important role in rebuilding Iraq. But they say the coalition partners who have fought to end the regime of Saddam Hussein should have the dominant role after the war.

Testifying on postwar Iraq before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Wolfowitz said the United States plans a three-stage strategy for Iraq after the fighting ends.

Under the first stage, the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance will govern the country, overseeing the delivery of humanitarian aid and restoring basic services, while coalition forces restore order to the country.

In the second phase, he said, these administrative duties will be turned over to the Iraqi interim authority. The authority will be made up of representatives of all the country's religious and ethnic groups, and will include repatriated exiles.

Third, Iraqis will elect their own government.

Wolfowitz did not give a timetable for this plan, and he rejected the idea of the United Nations organizing Iraq's return to self-government. He cited Bosnia as a reason: "I don't think we want to see a situation like we do in Bosnia, for example, where eight years after the Dayton agreement, the UN is still running Bosnia. We want to see a situation where power and responsibility is transferred as quickly as possible to the Iraqis themselves."

Nathan Brown is a professor of political science and international relations at George Washington University in Washington. He wonders whether Wolfowitz and other policymakers in the Bush administration can be so certain that Iraq will embrace democracy more quickly than Bosnia did simply because the United States will be administering the country, instead of the United Nations.

Brown acknowledged that the United Nations moves slowly and often inefficiently. But he told RFE/RL that it remains to be seen whether various U.S. agencies can suppress what he called their competitive urges and work together any more efficiently in Iraq. "It's not just a question of U.S. versus UN. It's clear there's going to be some role for both, and the U.S. is probably going to be dominant. But it's also a question of who in the U.S. State Department, USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development], the Department of Defense -- these are all going to be important bureaucratic actors in the effort, and it's not clear exactly how these are going to work themselves out," Brown said.

Brown noted that some previous U.S. efforts to democratize countries have been successful, but only because their peoples welcomed change, or at least tolerated it. What happens in Iraq, he said, cannot be fairly anticipated because it is being offered democracy after a military invasion and a forcible regime change.

He also rejected the notion that the people of Iraq will necessarily embrace democracy simply because the country had the largest professional and civil-service class in the Middle East before Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party took over in 1968.

According to Brown, any Iraqi professional who remembers the days before the Ba'ath takeover would have to be middle-aged by now, and any who actually worked as professionals at that time would be near retirement age. He said these people would now be too old to make a significant contribution to their country's political future.

Brown also said there is no way to know whether Iraqis are really hungry for democracy because they have lived in a closed society for decades. "Iraq had the closest thing that the Arab world has produced to a totalitarian system," he said. "And because of that, we don't really know what kind of political and social forces are going to emerge. And to predicate any democratization on the sense that there are all these democratic forces that are just waiting to express themselves -- it might be true, but it might prove to be a chimera in the end."

The illusion, according to Arthur Helton, is actually Wolfowitz's claim that the United Nations has been slow to bring sound governance to Bosnia. Helton is the director of Peace and Conflict Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, a private policy-research center in New York.

Helton said that in 1995, the United States and its European allies actually bypassed the United Nations when it drew up the Dayton peace accords that ended the Bosnian war and created the Office of the High Representative for Bosnia.

Under the accords, the only relationship that this office has with the United Nations is to advise the body on police work in Bosnia and to report to it occasionally, along with the United States, the European Union, Russia, and others.

According to Helton, the Bush administration appears to be ready to do much the same in Iraq, only with fewer participants. "We frankly will need the best efforts of all -- not only the U.S. but also its allies or former allies and the United Nations if we're going to do more than just muddle through in relation to Iraq. And muddling through, indeed, is not going to be enough in Iraq. That's going to require a level of accomplishment that is not reflected in recent international operations," Helton said.

Helton conceded that Wolfowitz is correct to say that recent UN efforts at nation building have had limited success. But he adds that acting without the world body is likely to be even less successful.

In fact, he said, Wolfowitz's reference to Bosnia was a good argument against the United States taking the course that it has chosen in Iraq. "If Bosnia is a lesson, it's not a happy lesson to turn away from the United Nations in this instance," he said.

Perhaps more to the point is Haiti, the impoverished U.S. neighbor in the Caribbean Sea. Helton notes that in the 1990s, the United States also led an effort to try to establish stable governance there, but eventually passed the responsibility to the United Nations. And Haiti still struggles.

Helton said there is very little capacity both in the United Nations and in the U.S. government for dealing with the problems that have arisen out of the war in Iraq -- distributing humanitarian aid, restoring essential services, setting up governments. As a result, he said, the Bush administration should not try to solve these problems in Iraq with only a few allies, but should be seeking help from as broad a range of sources as possible.