Swap Control for Support

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

August 20, 2003

When the UN Security Council passed a resolution last week welcoming the establishment of an Iraqi governing council, the Bush administration touted it as an important step toward the formation of a stable and legitimate government in Iraq. But the administration has reportedly decided, after weeks of internal debate, not to support the transfer of any significant new authority in Iraq to the United Nations. The failure to broaden the UN role in the occupation and secure greater international support is a mistake that will cost the United States in dollars, lives and reputation.

Despite protestations to the contrary from the Bush administration, the occupation of Iraq is not going well. The bombing Tuesday of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, and the attacks on key water mains and oil pipelines the day before, are only the latest signs of trouble. As Thomas Friedman of The New York Times reported from Baghdad last week, even the main highway from Baghdad to Jordan is riddled with armed bandits and other obstacles to safe passage of goods and people. There is not enough electricity in most parts of the country in part because the coalition does not have the forces to prevent attacks on power lines. Last week there were widespread riots in Basra because of the lack of supplies, and many Iraqis, while glad to be liberated, are saying their daily life was better under Saddam Hussein.

Even if the current number of troops in Iraq was sufficient for the task in hand, the burden of deploying those troops is falling too heavily on the United States. The United States is currently deploying 90 percent of the troops, suffering 90 percent of the casualties and paying more than 90 percent of the costs of occupation. Since President George W. Bush declared major combat operations over on May 1, 61 American soldiers have been killed—and the pace of the killing is rising.

Despite Pentagon claims that it is assembling a broad coalition, countries other than Britain have sent only a few thousand soldiers. The Bush administration hopes to increase this number over the coming months, but with the situation proving difficult on the ground potential allies—like the Poles who have offered to lead a sector, on the American payroll—are becoming less enthusiastic, not more.

Given the current size of the U.S. military, the Pentagon can replace the 150,000 men and women deployed now with fresh troops for next year. But unless troop requirements in Iraq fall much more quickly than they did in places like the Balkans, the next rotation will be possible only by sending back most of the original occupation forces for another tour or duty, or by relying on more troops from abroad.

If any of the potential crises in North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, Liberia or elsewhere flares up, the strains on the American military—and the defense budget—will become severe.

Several countries have said they would consider helping in Iraq if the United States were willing to allow a greater role for the United Nations in shaping the future of Iraq—no occupation without representation. India, Turkey, France, Germany, Russia and Mexico are among the countries that have the potential to provide significant help but will not do so without a new UN mandate and role.

These countries’ stance stems in part from their reluctance to confirm the Pentagon’s “if you build it they will come” theory of leadership—the notion that no matter how you treat allies, they’ll support you in the end because they have little choice.

These countries do have a choice, however, and Americans should want to give them a stake in Iraq’s success by getting them involved in its future. Collectively, the countries mentioned above could provide 40,000 troops for duty in Iraq, saving the United States approximately $10 billion—about the amount of money required, for example, to install antimissile equipment on U.S. civilian airliners, an urgent requirement for domestic security.

The Bush administration has decided it does not want to compromise at the United Nations because it is reluctant to give up control over the future of Iraq. For some reason it sees occupying Iraq as a prize to be jealously guarded rather than as a burden and responsibility to be collectively shared.

Ironically, however, the administration that is so often accused of believing too strongly in American power underestimates it in this case. Even in a fully fledged UN operation, Washington would easily be the dominant actor, as it has been in the Balkans, where NATO keeps the peace and a UN official looks after civilian administration. In the case of Iraq, that UN official could and would almost certainly be the current U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer 3rd.

A new Security Council resolution allowing for a greater United Nations role in Iraq would indeed require yielding some control in exchange for support—but right now, America needs support more than it needs control.