The U.N.’s Role in Iraq

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

August 23, 2007

When Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker report next month on the results of our “surge” in Iraq, the most important category, political progress, should receive an F. Even if our military forces have made real progress of late, their sacrifices will have been for naught because our diplomatic strategy has been disconnected, anemic and ineffective.

The importance of diplomacy is rooted in Iraq’s sectarian civil war. The war in Iraq is not the United States against a single enemy but the United States interjecting itself among many enemies fighting each other. That war cannot be solved by military means. Even if the United States were to quell the violence in the short term, fighting would erupt again with an American withdrawal. Until there is a political compact among Iraqi parties, endorsed by neighbors and the international community, there will be no prospect for peace in Iraq.

Yet thus far there has been no serious effort in this direction. Regional meetings in Baghdad and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, did not produce action agendas. Regional visits by the secretaries of state and defense will produce little concrete action as long as “support” is seen as bolstering Shiite dominance. President Bush’s remarks yesterday on promoting democracy only reaffirm his administration’s lack of realism about the complexity of political reconciliation and what’s needed to achieve it. The passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1770 this month may offer the chance for a radical departure. The resolution renewed the mandate for the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq and called for the United Nations to promote reconciliation—a daunting task but one crucial to any lasting settlement.

To this end, the United Nations needs a team with a high-profile, respected leader. It cannot be business as usual. The lead negotiator should report to the secretary general and must be empowered to directly engage regional and international actors. No one should have the illusion that the United Nations will replace the U.S. military role in Iraq. Its role should be political.

Strategic considerations critical to such a process include:

Core elements. Any agreement is likely to revolve around a “five plus one” agenda: federal-regional relations; sharing oil revenue; political inclusion (redressing de-Baathification); the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of militias; and minority rights. The “plus one” is the timing of a referendum on Kirkuk, which is guaranteed by the constitution but which could trigger pressures for Kurdish independence and draw Turkey into the conflict. These issues should be negotiated as a package to maximize options for viable compromises.

A five-year truce. The focus should be on provisions that can create sufficient confidence to stop the fighting—with the option to extend the time frame annually. Today, animosities are too sharp to expect that the parties can negotiate permanent solutions on the core agenda.

Iraqi positions. As a condition for participating in negotiations, Iraqi political parties and militia leaders must condemn al-Qaeda’s role in Iraq and agree to cooperate against it. The lead negotiator should meet separately with the Iraqi actors, mapping out their positions against the core agenda to determine whether deals could be made.

Regional players. Neighboring states also should be engaged on their positions on the core agenda. The lead negotiator will need to determine which actors have leverage, with whom, and on what issues spoilers need to be isolated.

Support. The United Nations must arrange a team of experts on issues such as oil and constitutional law to support the negotiations. It will be important to work out public information strategies, using local and regional television and radio outlets, to explain the U.N. role and mitigate attempts at disinformation from al-Qaeda and others.

Eventually a judgment must be made on whether to try for a major meeting to broker an agreement—like the Dayton agreement for Bosnia. Such a meeting must orchestrate negotiations among an inner circle of key Iraqis while engaging in a more limited way a wider contact group of the neighboring states. The United States will need to sustain constant bilateral diplomacy throughout this process, coordinating at each step with the U.N. negotiator.

The desire for a political agreement should not result in accepting just any settlement. The negotiating team will need to determine whether Iraqi and regional commitments are genuine, adequate and sufficiently encompassing of the key players to be viable.

The United States also must stop deluding itself about fleeting military progress amid Iraq’s wider political debacle. It should be made clear to Iraqis that if they will not take advantage of a credible multilateral process to reach a political compromise, then American troops cannot make a sustainable difference and will be withdrawn.