To Help Or Not To Help

1 September 2003

To Help Or Not To Help

By Gwynne Dyer

“Bring em on,” blustered President George W. Bush a month ago, so the terrorists blew up first the UN headquarters in Baghdad, and then Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, Iraq’s most prominent Shia leader, and a hundred other people in Najaf. “It is necessary to put an end to the American plan for occupation because it is useless,” said the dead cleric’s brother, Abd el-Aziz — and there are those in Washington who agree.

Slowly and reluctantly, the American supertanker is starting to turn. The idea of going back to the United Nations and trying to get some help on Iraq is being openly discussed in Washington. The debate in administration circles tacitly assumes that foreigners will leap at the chance to send troops and money if only the US accepts a new Security Council resolution that gives the UN some degree of control in Iraq. But as the US debates turning to the UN, the international community is turning away.

Of course, there may never be an official American request for UN help: the neo-conservative ideologues around Mr Bush still cannot say the phrase ‘international community’ without sneering. They also continue to delude themselves that the armed resistance is made up entirely of Saddam loyalists and foreign fanatics, two groups against whom they might win. (In fact, the bulk of the guerilla and terrorist attacks are coming from native Iraqi groups driven by nationalism and/or Islamic fervour, which is much more serious.)

On the other hand, if Mr Bush’s advisers conclude that the humiliation of asking the UN for help is less damaging politically than the cost of fighting a mini-Vietnam in Iraq in an election year, the request could well be made. As Democratic Senator Joe Biden and Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wrote in a letter to Bush two weeks ago about the “urgent need” to get more foreign troops into Iraq: “Enhancing the role of the UN…will allow us to share the huge risk and expense of securing, policing and reconstructing Iraq.”

So maybe the neo-cons will be told to eat a little crow, and Secretary of State Colin Powell will be sent back to the Security Council to seek a new resolution that approves a UN peace-keeping mission in Iraq. According to the US script, the UN promptly gives the operation its blessing, and suddenly all those French, German, Russian, Turkish, Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi troops that their governments wouldn’t send without legal cover from the UN show up in Iraq. The pressure on over-stretched US forces drops, there are a hundred thousand extra soldiers to protect Iraq’s infrastructure from constant sabotage, and everybody lives happily ever after.

Except that nobody wants to send their troops into a meat-grinder. All these countries are serious about needing the UN to legitimise any operation they take part in, but they are also using that as an excuse to avoid casualties. Even the coalition’s existing members are getting cold feet: Japan, which was going to send a thousand troops, put it off indefinitely after the Baghdad bomb, and Poland changed its mind and refused to take responsibility for a Sunni Muslim area south of Baghdad, preferring to stick to safer Shia areas.

This reluctance to take casualties is reinforced, in most cases, by the belief that it probably wouldn’t do any good. The Iraqi resistance would kill Germans and Pakistanis just as readily as Americans, seeing them as mere American accomplices, and in the end the US would probably do a Vietnam and pull out anyway. So don’t go in the first place.

At the popular level, in many countries, there is also a grim satisfaction at the mess the Bush administration has got itself into: ‘We told the Americans it was a bad idea, and they did it anyway, so let them clear it up if they can.’ This attitude is mercifully not shared by any of the governments that have a major say at the UN: they know that the United States is central to the international system, and that civil war and collapse in Iraq could be disastrous for the whole Middle East. But there is one very strong argument on the other side.

Nobody talks openly about this, but many governments are also privately debating whether they want to help save the Bush administration from the consequences of its own folly. Without a lot of military and financial help that can only come via the UN, Bush may be dragged down to defeat by the Iraq war in the November, 2004 election. With the extra troops and money, he might contain the problem enough to survive. But, they ask themselves, do we really want that?

Few people in Washington grasp how alarmed other governments are by the Bush administration’s pre-emptive strategy. They see the neo-conservatives as a mortal threat to the UN, NATO and the entire multilateral order that has been built up over the past fifty years as the foundation of global stability. Maybe, they think, it would be better to wait until Iraq drags Bush down, and start picking up the pieces in early 2005.

If other countries decide they’d rather not help Bush, saying no to a new UN resolution will be easy, because any American request would come laden with conditions including command of the whole UN force. Maybe the US won’t ask for help at all, or maybe it will get turned down, but either way it will probably be pretty much on its own in Iraq.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“This reluctance…side”)