For Iraq, lessons of another June 30

Congo: Forty-four years ago, a nation on the brink of civil war was granted sovereignty before it was ready.

May 30, 2004|By Bruce Oudes | Bruce Oudes,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It happened amid a hotly contested presidential election campaign during an era of global turmoil - an occupying power granted sovereign independence to a distant and highly unstable colonial territory on June 30.

Chaos ensued. One region declared itself independent. Civil war broke out.

Less than a month after independence, the president of the United States turned to the U.N. Security Council for help. For years, troops under U.N. command struggled to sort things out amid seemingly endless violence and confusion about whether the United Nations or the newly independent government was in charge.

Meanwhile, the president of the United States, operating largely out of public view, guided the actions of the United Nations as well as the new government.

Does that sound familiar? But it's not the future of Iraq under discussion, it is the history of the Belgian Congo, which became independent June 30, 1960.

But there are lessons from that transfer of power that could apply June 30, 2004 when Iraq is due a measure of sovereignty.

Namely, why did Belgium, the occupying power in the Congo, convey sovereign authority to an unstable Congolese government rather than entrusting that power to the United Nations?

Years ago I put that question to Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster, who was President Dwight D. Eisenhower's senior White House aide in 1960 when the Congo became independent.

Copper-rich Katanga province seceded a few days later. U.N. forces were sent, and these troops brought down the secession in early 1962, thus preserving the territorial integrity of the Congo.

Would Eisenhower have persuaded Belgium to turn sovereign responsibility for the Congo over to the U.N. Security Council rather than granting independence directly to the vast territory? Yes, Goodpaster replied without hesitation. Eisenhower "loved" the U.N. mechanism for handling such problems, he added.

So, why hadn't that happened?

No one thought of it, Goodpaster said with a wistful smile.

Eisenhower's strong confidence in the Security Council mechanism amid the Cold War stands in sharp contrast to another Republican president 44 years later.

Had President Bush not been so reluctant to take advantage of the Security Council option, U.S. troops - operating under a U.N. flag - might have suffered far fewer casualties in the past 12 months. The prisoner abuse may well never have happened.

The relationship of the Security Council to U.S. national security is simple.

Because the permanent members have absolute veto power over Security Council decisions and actions, the council can't take any action or alter it without at least the tacit approval of the United States. In Eisenhower's time, U.S. policy was that it was vital that the Security Council succeed in a visible way.

In the past four decades, millions of Republicans have come to despise the United Nations. In that, they find themselves in agreement with Osama Bin Laden, who promised a bag of gold to anyone who assassinates U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

If President Bush had let the Security Council assume sovereignty for Iraq a year ago, we might not be facing Congo-like chaos in that country. It is not too late to correct that mistake.

The critical choice that Bush and the United Nations face is between two very different alternatives: One is the wobbly Anglo-American draft resolution presented May 24 that gives Iraq its odd form of sovereignty and continues current U.S. policy, which views the United Nations as "them."

Or, the Bush administration could present a strong "us" resolution that makes it clear the United States regards itself as an integral part of the United Nations and places all international forces, including those of the United States, under the U.N. flag, as is the case in Korea.

The procedure involved is simple. On June 30 the U.S. flag over Iraq is replaced by the U.N. flag at the top of the pole with the Iraqi flag right below.

Then, after the interim Iraqi authority produces a constitution and holds a fair election in about 18 months, the U.N. flag is lowered and replaced at the top by the Iraqi flag. The country is again fully sovereign.

This would reassure a skeptical world - including plenty of nervous Americans and Iraqis - that the Congo syndrome will not be repeated.

In this scenario, any issues between the interim Iraqi government and the U.N. representatives in Iraq would be publicly aired in the U.N. Security Council, subject to U. S. veto.

The fact that the Security Council was not given interim "title" to the Congo by Belgium before June 30, 1960, meant years of political intrigue and jockeying for influence there by France, the Soviet Union and the United States.

In 1960, the Congo chaos strengthened the impact of John F. Kennedy's national security message throughout the presidential debates and made a major contribution to the defeat of Richard M. Nixon.

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