Traub on UN in Iraq

The New York Times’ James Traub (perhaps most famous for being the first-ever guest in our Delegates Lounge) just released a smart analysis of the UN in Iraq, which was commissioned by the Stanley Foundation. The PDF is here.

The UN, says Traub, will inevitably assume the responsibility for negotiating a political settlement in Iraq. It the only body capable of acting both as an impartial mediator of Iraq’s internal disputes and as a neutral platform to entice the support of Iraq’s neighbors. The Bush administration is certainly pushing for this expanded UN role — and the Secretary General is receptive.

The problem, of course, is that Iraq’s factions do not want the UN — or anyone — to arbitrate their disputes. Violence is still seen as a profitable way to secure political power, or deny it to others. Further, the United States has not made clear the extent to which it is willing to cede power to the United Nations to accomplish this task. Asks Traub, “Would the White House back a UN diplomat trying, say, to limit Kurdish control over Kirkuk? What if that diplomat needed to promise a timeline for the withdrawal of US troops in exchange for Sunni concessions?” At least for the moment, this does not seem to be the case.

Even if the UN were fully empowered by key member states, success if not ordained. Still, this is the last best option for Iraq. Explains Traub:

The prospects are so daunting, and the likelihood of success so low, that one would never contemplate this act of diplomatic legerdemain were there any meaningful alternative. But there isn’t. The American military presence is not, itself, changing the key political facts; and an American withdrawal, by itself, will not suddenly bring the parties to their sense.

From an institutional point of view, there is the danger that member states direct the UN to lead a political process, but not actually cede to the UN the requisite power to do so. (And then, when the peace process fails, blame the UN.) But, says Traub, the UN is willing to assume this risk. After all, the UN will be bogged down in Iraq long after foreign armed forces leave the country. There are already two million Iraq refugees and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced being looked after by the UN. These numbers will only augment as violence spreads.