Failure to secure Iraq carries a high price

November 17, 2003|By Jules Witcover

NEW YORK - At the United Nations, where one of its prime functions is providing a multilateral aspect and legitimacy to the solving of international conflict, the mood is one of frustration.

The failure of President Bush's transparently thin "coalition of the willing" to prevent attacks on the U.N. humanitarian mission in Baghdad has led Secretary-General Kofi Annan to withdraw staffers from the beleaguered city and decline to send them back in until dependable security can be established.

In the towering secretariat building on the East River, staffers express chagrin that their colleagues in Baghdad were targeted, because the insurgents and terrorists in Iraq seemed to have considered their presence as part of the U.S.-British occupation.

It is a particularly ironic assumption inasmuch as the United Nations declined to give the United States the specific sanction it sought for the invasion.

"We were seen as a target, somehow interpreted as part of the American effort," says one staff member slated to go to Iraq before Mr. Annan pulled the U.N. mission out.

"There is no realization in Washington," she says, of how the deaths of U.N. colleagues have added a personal element to the general opposition to the invasion by men and women here dedicated to the resolution of problems by collective efforts. The loss of Mr. Annan's special representative, Sergio Vieira de Mello, regarded as one of the United Nation's most effective and esteemed diplomats, is considered a particular sacrifice.

Tim Wirth, the former U.S. senator from Colorado who is now president of the private United Nations Foundation, says that many Iraqis at the same time are hostile toward the United Nations for having been unable to stop the invasion.

Ramifications of the failure to provide adequate security in Iraq are also evident in the decisions by countries to hold off sending troops there to achieve it. Japan has decided to wait on grounds the situation in Iraq is too unstable. South Korea has announced it will not add to the 3,000 troops sent.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice has put the best face on the Japanese decision, saying the United States understands that Japan "wants to think about the timing" of dispatching forces. And Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's observation that Iraq "has been a violent country for a long time and it very likely will be for a long time" means that "people need to participate there with their eyes open."

Apparently in response to the instability in Iraq, however, the Bush administration has now changed signals. It has indicated it will yield to pressures from the United Nations and others and accelerate the timetable for creating a provisional government that Iraqis will see as more than a U.S. mouthpiece rather than wait for a new homegrown constitution that seems far off.

This switch, while most welcome at the United Nations, invites skepticism that White House political strategists are nervous that what is increasingly seen as an occupation rather than a liberation may stretch out to next November's presidential election. Inviting the same skepticism are reports that the screening and training of Iraqi nationals for security tasks are being cut short in order to get them into the streets more quickly.

If Mr. Rumsfeld's assessment of the length of time it will take to bring violence to an end in Iraq is correct, putting inadequately screened and trained Iraqis on the firing line raises questions about the U.S. commitment. If nothing else, the president's ambitious plans to turn Iraq and the Middle East into a democratic paradise certainly will require staying power.

As the Democratic presidential candidates harp on what they see as the absence of an exit strategy in Iraq, the administration seems involved in ad hoc decision-making. There's an element in all this that brings to mind, in reverse, the old Jimmy Durante refrain: "Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, and still had the feeling that you wanted to stay?"

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau and his column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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