A Brokered Peace: U.N. Mediation Is the Best Hope for a Political Settlement in Iraq

Carlos Pascual
Carlos Pascual Former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Senior Vice President for Global Energy - IHS Markit, Former Brookings expert

March 27, 2007

The March 10 international conference seeking peace in Iraq should be applauded. If those with a stake in Iraq are talking, they might at least find common rhetorical ground in their opposition to terrorism. But dialogue does not mean peace. Focused international mediation, ideally by the United Nations, will be needed for peace and stability.

The Bush administration seems to ignore the need for a formal political settlement in Iraq. In Bosnia, Kosovo, Congo, Mozambique and Northern Ireland, political agreements were essential to securing peace, even if they could not guarantee it. Iraq has redefined civil war—with Shiites and Sunnis killing each other, militias battling the government, insurgents targeting coalition forces and al-Qaeda in Iraq fighting everyone. Fighting can shape the incentives for negotiation by demonstrating futility to one side or the other or exhausting participants. But without a framework for peace to implement, force alone cannot sustain stability as long as any party continues to maim or bide its time waiting for better prospects.

Most peace agreements must engage the stakeholders in the conflict for those agreements to stick. The Baghdad conference was right to call on neighboring states to refuse to fund terrorism. The proposed working groups on border security, fuel imports and refugees address key topics. But if the parties to the conference want a serious chance for peace in Iraq and stability in the region, they need an honest broker to help them turn contentious issues into meaningful options. The United Nations is not magical, but there is no other actor with comparable neutrality. In Iraq, U.N. special adviser Lakhdar Brahimi brokered agreement on the interim government in spring 2004 when the United States could not.

The departure point for U.N. engagement should be practical: dealing with 2 million refugees and 1.8 million internally displaced people. Most are living with relatives. The million more who probably will be displaced next year will be poorer and have fewer skills. They will have little option but to mass in refugee camps, a breeding ground for violence, extremism and recruitment of terrorists.

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR has the international mandate to address such crises. It should bring together Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Kuwait, the United States and the European Union in regional meetings in Jordan and policy oversight meetings in New York. UNHCR should report to the Security Council to develop and implement a plan addressing the humanitarian crisis, the security risks inherent in population displacement and eventual resettlement. Whether or not they support President Bush’s surge strategy, Americans should welcome an international approach to share the burden of the refugee crisis. Today, there is no strategy.

The bigger challenge is brokering a sustainable peace. A strong U.N. role does not mean the United States should opt out of the diplomatic process. Rather, it frees the United States to conduct aggressive bilateral diplomacy under a multilateral umbrella without the constraint of having to serve as a trusted arbiter.

The substantive elements of an agreement are well known: sharing oil revenue, federal-regional power sharing, minority rights, some form of amnesty for some combatants, and disarmament and reintegration of militias. Getting there is another matter. The oil legislation proposed by the Iraqi cabinet could help, but it does not address the contentious issue of splitting revenue among provinces. Inevitably, one group’s demands on oil will need to be balanced with another’s claims on dealing with ex-combatants. For Iraq to broker such a peace on its own would defy recent history on the resolution of conflict.

Many ideas will need to be tested to find a political process that works. Here’s one concept: The Baghdad conference participants could call on U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to propose a process leading to a political settlement that foreign ministers could endorse. Iraqis would be at the center of the process under U.N. mediation. Regional actors would enforce the mandate to get peace (and stay out of the conflict themselves). A “contact group” would engage international parties but keep them out of legalistic nuances.

In parallel, the United States should stress that the goal of its military presence is to create an environment for peace. Progress toward peace would be the most important benchmark in determining whether to sustain our military engagement. American politicians would need to be honest with the public: If there is a political agreement, don’t expect U.S. troops to come home immediately. NATO was in Bosnia nine years after the Dayton Accords, and E.U. troops are still there. Building Iraqi capacity will take years—as did capacity-building after less distressed transitions in Poland, Russia and Ukraine.

Acute violence and the history of grievance in Iraq make a political settlement unlikely. But the chances of succeeding militarily without a peace agreement are even smaller. Now that a dialogue has started, let’s give it the honest broker needed to produce results.