‘The Melancholy Destiny of the UN’

On October 22, the New York Times Magazine‘s James Traub published a report on the likelihood of an expanded UN role in Iraq for the Stanley Foundation. Traub speaks to UN Dispatch about the report, the inevitability of greater UN involvement in Iraq, and the troubling prospect that Iraq’s last best hope may still fail.

In your report, you argue that it is inevitable that the UN take on a more robust political role in Iraq. How do you come to that conclusion?

It is probably inevitable that the UN’s role will be expanded, but it is by no means inevitable what that role will be. It will be expanded in part because the dimensions of catastrophe there call on some of the abilities that the UN uniquely has. For example, the whole question of what will be done with the over two million refugees — perhaps an equal number of IDPs — is the kind of work the UN does. There is also another sense in which the expansion of the UN’s role is inevitable, namely that there is a wish both on the part of the United States and of the United Nations for an expanded UN role.

The question is, what can the UN usefully contribute to Iraq?The security situation limits the number of people that can go there. And of course, the greatest catastrophe in the history of the United Nations was the [bombing of the UN headquarters] in August 2003 which killed 29 people. So there is a deep wariness to putting more personnel in Iraq.

The real question is a political one: can the UN use its convening capacity — its capacity as an impartial mediator — to somehow engage in the kind of acts of political reconciliation that it has done elsewhere, but which no-one has been able to replicate in Iraq?

To that end, do you see any parallels from previous UN operations that might be applicable to Iraq?

Look at Burundi. That may seems like a silly comparison. But there you had a situation where Hutus ands Tutsis came close to using genocide as a political instrument in their struggle for power. That seemingly intractable situation has now become cured by a combination of UN intervention and the cooperation of all the relevant neighbors.

In that sense, the UN at times has been able to bind up wounds that otherwise seem incurable. Iraq of course, presents a unique situation because of the astonishing level of violence. Even beyond that (so far as most outsiders can tell) there is an unwillingness among the belligerents to concede that violence is not going to be the best way to achieve political goals. Neither the UN nor any other interlocutor can succeed in helping foster the conditions for political reconciliation unless the parties themselves are convinced that they can get what they want through some sort of negotiated process.

How then could the UN, as opposed to the US or any other country, break that impasse and convince the various factions that they have more to gain than lose through a negotiated settlement?

The first answer to your question is that that UN clearly has an advantage over the United States because it is seen as being an impartial actor. For all the anger at the UN that built up in the United States during the oil for food program, the fact is that back in 2004, Washington recognized that it could not speak to any of the players that it wanted to be a part of the interim government. That was part of what Sergio Vieira de Mello was doing when he was tragically killed in that bomb blast. This was also what Lakdhar Brahimi did in 2004 when he was able to put together the interim government of Iraq.

So the UN does have that kind of impartial convening power. The question, though, is how can the UN persuade the belligerents in Iraq that they have more to gain from compromise than killing people? I don’t think the UN can do that. I think you have to begin the process and hope it attracts enough energy and attention so that the Maliki government and Sunni groups, however grudgingly, begin to come around.

For this to succeed, it would seem that the United States would have to fully support this track. What indicators have you seen that suggest the US would support a robust UN-led diplomatic endeavor?

Only desperation. Outside of that, I see none. You can parse the words that [UN Ambassador] Zalmay Khalilzad has spoken, and see in them a greater willingness to have the UN play a serious leading role in Iraq. The rub is going to come when, for example, the Sunni parties say “we’re not going to even talk seriously about the kinds of concessions we are willing to make unless the Americans say they are going to leave.”

Would Washington permit someone from the UN to negotiate away key strategic decisions? I find that hard to believe. But then again, what exactly does Washington mean when it says it wants the UN to play a much greater role in the process of political reconciliation? I assume that this issue has not been joined.

What ‘needs to give’ for Washington to cede that kind of authority to the UN?

I think the answer probably is that there needs to be a growing sense that there is no alternative. The kind of threshold question is: Does Washington support sending a serious negotiating figure to Iraq, and is it willing to give him or her the political space required?

If you look back to the Brahimi example in 2004, the US essentially allowed Brahimi to have a central role in assembling what would become the Iraqi government. So there you could say Washington granted him the political space he needed because they saw he could play a useful role. Could that provide an analogy for what could happen now? Hypothetically it does. It shows you that the key thing is granting that political space and to some extent stepping back and allowing this process to happen.

If the UN were so empowered, it may be able to break the political impasse we are seeing now. But as you say in your report, even if the UN is given this space, there is no guarantee of success — far from it.

Right, but the problem is that every other path looks like a trajectory of sure failure. It is the melancholy destiny of the UN to be called on in the most desperate situations when everyone else has thrown up their hands or nobody else cares. Here is a case where people care desperately, but there doesn’t seem to be any path to success. So, this is one of the besetting problems of the UN: it may be called on, then fail, then be blamed. But you can’t say “we are not going to try because it will look bad if we fail.” That’s not how the UN thinks.