As so often with the George W. Bush administration, the real debate about the UN’s role is not in the Security Council, it is in Washington. With some macabre irony, the bombing of the UN headquarters August 19th in Baghdad may create some political space in the White House. With the attrition of will for the occupation due to the loss of U.S. soldiers’ blood and U.S. taxpayers’ gold, and an impending presidential election campaign, there are signs that administration is moving, albeit too slowly, toward the inevitable. It should be encouraged to do so.

The murderers who set off the truck bomb outside the UN Headquarters in Baghdad, whether they were vengeful Ba’athists or Islamic fundamentalists, were not fighting for freedom of a kind that any of us would recognize.

It is not the first time that there has been a morbid synergy between some of the faith-based warriors in the Pentagon and their fundamentalist sparring partners in the region. They both have a profound disdain for the UN and any concept of international law.

However, while the hard-liners in the Pentagon can see the dangers of the UN to the U.S. (and of course, how could we forget, the British) occupation, the bombers probably could not. Nuance is not their forte.

Their biggest victim, Sergio Vieira de Mello, had been trying to enlarge the UN presence incrementally, without provoking blowback from the right wing of the Pentagon. If his plan were successful, the future Iraqi government would not have the Quisling stigmata of being a regime installed by the invaders. In fact, the UN presence could help ensure an independent, secular, rights-based government in Baghdad.

On a very superficial level, you can see why the murderers may consider the UN as pandering to the American occupation. Kofi Annan did indeed say that the invasion was against the UN Charter, but it was a muted statement for the record rather than a loud, global denunciation. The UN was setting up shop once again in Baghdad, after it had overseen a decade worth of sanctions. However, the secretary general has a lot of company in his diplomatic reticence.

Most of the world has contented itself with skirting the issue of the invasion’s legality, in the hope of influencing the course of the reconstruction. The UN has been similarly circumspect–trying to work with the small internationalist wing of the State Department to ameliorate the plight of the Iraqi people but yet trying not to mention “the war,” for fear of alienating the Pentagon even more.

As so often in diplomacy, ambiguity is very useful. Security Council Resolution 1500, which “welcomed” the Iraqi Governing Council is a classic example. Most members saw it, correctly, as a step toward returning sovereignty to the Iraqis as soon as possible, while Washington hailed it as international validation of the U.S. invasion and occupation. In fact, the other members have noticed that the Iraqi Governing Council, which has been very eager to win UN validation and is straining to break out from American tutelage, and have certainly been very careful not to approve the actual invasion.

It is clear that the local administrators would rather work with the UN than with the occupation forces, who are increasingly overstaying their welcome and have left much to be desired in the way of service delivery. Both sane and cynical voices in Washington have noticed that the UN actually has considerable institutional experience in reconstruction, not to mention long contacts with Iraq itself.

Many in the progressive community say that since Washington cooked this particular hot potato, it should hold it, but that would be unfair to the long-suffering Iraqis. While the U.S. and British troops should not have gone in without Security Council mandate, the world now has to deal with the reality that was created. By removing the Ba’athists’ tight control of a country filled with lethal weaponry and huge grudges, the security situation on the ground is unstable at best.

But the U.S. troops should be taken off the streets as soon as possible. Their presence as occupiers as well as the casualties inflicted upon the Iraqi people (now estimated between 6-7,000) is far too costly for the Iraqi people. The price the U.S. has to pay for UN peacekeepers doing the job is a much more explicit role for the international community in the administration than the Pentagon has been prepared to allow so far.

It may be too much to expect from the White House to internationalize control of the military in Iraq but it would make a lot of sense to leave reconstruction and civil administration, including justice and policing, to a condominium of the Iraqi Governing Council and the United Nations. A sensible approach would be loosely modeled on Kosovo, where the military command structure was separate from the UN’s civilian and administrative side.

It is time to reassure the world and the Iraqis with a firm timetable to end the occupation, and to internationalize the transition to independence and democracy.

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