As the United States contemplates the challenges of restoring order and beginning reconstruction in Iraq, it is worth thinking about how to do so without provoking resentment for what might be seen as an Anglo-American occupation. Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, if the United States could turn for help to a multilateral organization, more effective and more efficient than the United Nations, that would confer legitimacy on the operation and help spread some of the costs?
Fortunately, such an organization does exist. NATO has experience with peacekeeping and disarmament, an available pool of troops, existing command arrangements and a proven track record of promoting defense reform and civil-military relations in former authoritarian states.
There would be many advantages to giving NATO a key role in postwar Iraq. Nowhere else is there a pool of available and experienced peacekeepers who could gradually replace the thousands of exhausted American and British soldiers currently deployed in Iraq.
Involving NATO in postwar Iraq would also help to legitimize the reconstruction process in the eyes of many around the world—making a UN mandate more likely and facilitating the provision of European Union reconstruction funds.
There is already much skepticism around the world about American motives in Iraq. Putting the Pentagon in sole charge of maintaining security, hunting weapons of mass destruction and reconstituting an Iraqi army would only enhance that skepticism.
World opinion would perhaps be even more reassured if the UN were put in charge of security in Iraq, but as it showed in the Balkans, the UN is ill prepared to play an effective security role in a potentially hostile environment. Giving a role to NATO would prove that Iraq was not a mere American protectorate, while still giving America confidence that security would be ensured.
Involving NATO in Iraq’s security arrangements would also be a vital step toward giving America’s European allies—including Russia—a stake in the successful reconstruction of Iraq.
One of the most negative consequences of having to fight this war without support from France, Germany, Russia and most of European public opinion was that opponents of the war now see the creation of a democratic, stable and prosperous Iraq as an American project. They even have an almost subconscious stake in American failure, if only to prove the merit of their opposition to the war. To reverse that destructive dynamic, the United States has a strong interest in involving as many European allies as possible. A collective NATO commitment to that goal would be an important first step.
Many in the Pentagon will fight the idea of relinquishing any control, especially to the French and the Germans. And there is no guarantee that Washington would succeed if it sought to involve NATO. France, in particular, has long opposed efforts to endow NATO with a global security role, given Washington’s dominant role in the alliance. But it was interesting that when the issue of NATO in Iraq was quietly broached at the time of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit April 3 to NATO headquarters, several allies strongly supported the idea, and none—not even France—came out against it.
France has also been quietly lowering its opposition to a NATO role in Afghanistan beginning next summer, when the current Dutch-German force in Kabul is scheduled to leave. While it would be premature to see these moves as a major opening, it would also be a mistake not to explore that possibility. Getting NATO involved in Iraq would not only help share the burden of what could be a difficult and costly occupation, but it could be a first step toward repairing the vital trans-Atlantic relationship.