Behind the UN Vote on Iraq

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U.S. and and British ambassadors to the UN register their vote. Because Syria was boycotting the vote, its seat, on left, remained empty

The UN Security Council's endorsement of the U.S.-British occupation of Iraq is simply a recognition of the facts on the ground. It has been abundantly clear for the past month to the member states who had most strongly opposed the war — Russia, Germany, China and France — that history could not be reversed by the power of Security Council veto. And trying once again to block the U.S. at the Security Council would further damage dangerously frayed transatlantic relations, render the UN irrelevant to a world managed by U.S. power, and prolong the humanitarian crisis facing the Iraqi people. Instead, they negotiated for a few weeks to salvage what they could by way of recognition of their commercial interests in Iraq and also of a visible, although mostly decorative, role for the UN in rebuilding the country, and then voted 14-0 for a U.S.-authored resolution lifting sanctions against Iraq, freeing up its oil for sale on world markets, and recognizing the U.S. and Britain as the de facto government of Iraq until such time as a functioning representative government is constituted — a process that could take months, or years.

The resolution creates a legal framework for the U.S. and Britain to run Iraq and sell its oil in order to help finance reconstruction. The antiwar nations had hoped to put the UN in charge of that reconstruction effort, and the political process of creating an Iraqi government, but Thursday's vote was a recognition that possession is nine tenths of the law — a UN special representative will be appointed to play an unspecified role in helping create a new government, UN officials will be appointed in various advisory capacities and weapons inspectors may yet be invited back in. But in whatever aspect of rebuilding Iraq, the UN's role is envisaged as an adjunct to the occupying powers. And the international body's vote to ratify the occupation of one member nation following an invasion to which most member nations were opposed is a dramatic indicator of the extent to which the UN has been subordinated to Pax Americana.

Still, those were the terms set by the U.S., and the antiwar Europeans had no pragmatic alternative but to accept them. (Syria, the fifteenth Council member, simply recalled its ambassador and absented itself from the vote to as to avoid having to endorse Western occupation of an Arab land.) In their acceptance, however, at least some of the Europeans are quietly adopting an attitude of "you-broke-it, you-own-it" — an expectation that Washington's ill-starred efforts thus far to manage the postwar transition and the mounting danger of chaos may yet produce a costly lesson for the occupying powers who have demanded sole responsibility for Iraq's fate.

Six weeks after U.S. forces took control of the city, Baghdad remains dangerously unstable: The electricity supply is patchy; there is no working landline- or cellular telephone system and therefore very little communication; political and criminal gangs still control much of the street — 240 Iraqi civilians were reported killed in the city in the first three weeks of occupation — and looting, car-jacking and revenge-killings continue; U.S. troops untrained for the job have been forced to function as policemen even as some hostile elements in the population are firing on Americans; and the political temperature is rising as Iraqis of many different, even contradictory, political stripe are demanding that the occupiers hand over power to Iraqis.

The first U.S. administrator for postwar Iraq, retired general Jay Garner, had hoped to inaugurate an Iraqi transitional government dominated by former exiles as early as this week. But that plan has been put on hold as Garner found himself replaced by former ambassador Paul Bremer, following sharp warnings to Washington by U.S. officials on the ground that the situation had drifted dangerously out of control on Garner's watch. Bremer and British officials on his team have said that the process of establishing an Iraqi interim authority would be delayed at least until mid-July, but they also made clear that they envisage such a body — much like the UN — as playing a consultative role to the occupation authority in a long-term process of building credible institutions of Iraqi self-government. That position certainly avoids the risk of a hasty transfer of power to exiled groups in the face of considerable hostility from within the population, particularly among Shiite Muslim clerics. But it also potentially adds the exile groups with whom Washington had been working to the growing list of those alienated by the occupation regime.

Bremer's emphasis has been on restoring security and basic services, regaining the ground lost in the first month during which U.S. plans for managing the post-Saddam scenario had proved woefully inadequate. The freeing up by the UN of some Iraqi oil revenues will certainly help the new U.S. administrator finance urgent reconstruction projects and pay the salaries of some of the millions of Iraqis who previously worked in the public sector. And he hopes that stepped up patrolling by coalition forces — and, particularly, the addition of some 4,000 military police personnel and a large contingent of British troops more experienced in peacekeeping roles — will help stabilize the situation. He has also committed to a program of disarming Iraqis, although the rapid growth of militias linked to the various political factions, and the fact that so many Baghdadis are now relying on weapons of their own to protect themselves and their property in the absence of adequate policing, may make that a tough task.

Thursday's UN resolution certainly gives the U.S. and its allies more resources, particularly financially, for managing the transition. And it endorses direct political control of Iraq by Washington and its allies, if only for the reason that the Security Council naysayers have no means of reversing that reality. At the same time, it does open the door for a UN role, which could grow in time — and some of the Europeans may be betting that as the task of rebuilding Iraq grows ever more challenging and more costly to Washington and its allies, the U.S. may become more inclined to expand the UN's role in Iraq, if only to share the load.