Powell's Rough Road at the UN

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Powell with Paul Bremer in Baghdad

It has been clear for months now that the U.S. would not to get international help in Iraq on its own terms — if capable nations had been willing to send troops and treasure to back up the U.S.-run occupation authority in Baghdad, the Bush administration would not have been forced to go back to the UN in the first place. Last weekend's talks in Geneva between Secretary of State Colin Powell and the foreign ministers of the other veto-wielding Security Council members — Britain, France, Russia and China — highlighted both the potential for a new deal on Iraq, but also the extent of compromise that may be required from Washington in order to get there.

The U.S. has approached the Security Council seeking a new resolution that would give UN authorization, and thereby international legitimacy, for nations that opposed the war to send troops and funds to ease Washington's burden in Iraq. The Pentagon had originally hoped to get as many as 50,000 troops from nations such as Turkey, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but when approached, these countries uniformly demanded UN authorization as a precondition for any deployment. And the UN imprimatur is also considered essential to persuade some of the wealthy nations of Europe to contribute funds to a reconstruction effort that, together with the military expenses, is already set to cost the U.S. over $100 billion.

The antiwar powers on the Security Council certainly appear ready to accept the principle that the U.S. would remain in charge of any UN-authorized military force in Iraq. Such cases as Kosovo, East Timor and Afghanistan have recently established the precedent for the nation or group of nations committing most of the troops to a UN-authorized peace-enforcement mission retains command. The question of how quickly to transfer sovereign authority to Iraqis has been a point of contention, with the French initially insisting that a transitional government be seated within a month, while Secretary of State Powell dismissed the suggestion as wildly unrealistic. But even on that score, a compromise appears to be within reach: The French now suggest a "symbolic" transfer of sovereignty before real governance is handed over to an Iraqi authority, and that an expedited timetable be drawn up for elections. Expediting the political process worries many Iraq observers, however, who fear that haste will limit the opportunity for democratic institutions to be built from the ground up. But others see speeding up the political transition as the basis of a U.S. exit strategy.

The crucial sticking point in the negotiations at Geneva — and in those scheduled for the weeks ahead — is the question of who remains legally in charge in Baghdad between now and the establishment of a sovereign Iraqi government. In the U.S. view of things, that would be Ambassador Paul Bremer, with the UN playing the not entirely clearly defined support role previously occupied by late Sergio Vieira De Mello, the accomplished diplomat killed in last month's bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad. Absolutely not, say the French, Russians and Chinese. The only basis to confer UN legitimacy on the military mission, they insist, is to put the international body in charge of supervising the political transition to Iraqi self-rule (as in Afghanistan, East Timor and Kosovo). Anything short of UN political control, they say, would be to underwrite a U.S. occupation of Iraq — and that's something the nations that opposed the war remain unwilling to countenance.

As much as the new spirit of cooperation suggests some measure of acceptance of a shared burden in Iraq — or perhaps, more correctly, a sense of shared consequences if Iraq remains unstable — the debate over political control in Baghdad is a reminder that neither side is willing to give ground on the positions that divided them so sharply before the war. The Bush administration insists that both the reasons for the invasion, and the strategy adopted, remain valid despite mounting domestic concern. But in the eyes of much of the international community, neither the U.S. case for invading Iraq, nor the strategy it has pursued, have been vindicated by events: No weapons of mass destruction have been found; the Iraqis have not exactly thronged the streets to welcome coalition as liberators; Iraqi resistance to the occupation has persisted and escalated, and postwar Iraq appears to have presented al-Qaeda with new opportunities rather than dealing it a setback. And that underscores their reluctance to adopt any resolution that could be read as retrospectively sanctifying the war, and more importantly to be sanctifying the occupation. The French and their allies hold that it is only once Iraq is turned from a territory legally under U.S. occupation to a territory legally under UN control pending the restoration of its sovereignty that the international body can answer the call for help.

Taking political control in Baghdad away from Ambassador Bremer and handing it to a UN official, however, may go far beyond what Washington is willing to accept. Given the commitment of life and treasure the U.S. has already made in Iraq, and the fact that it will likely continue to shoulder the lion's share of military and economic responsibility, Washington is unlikely to simply hand over the reins to an international diplomat. And to do so, of course, would be to admit the failure of the administration's own postwar strategy. But some of President Bush's domestic critics are demanding he do just that. Democratic presidential hopeful Senator John Kerry, for example, has called on the administration to hand political control in Baghdad over to the UN, and mounting bipartisan concern over the cost of the occupation mission is raising pressure on the White House to seek international consensus.

One compromise currently being floated is for Bremer himself to be appointed as UN representative in Baghdad, allowing him to report both to Washington and to the Security Council. But that proposal may not sit well at either end of the divide.

Even as the wrangling at the UN continues, it's far from clear that even a new Security Council resolution would significantly lighten the U.S. military burden in Iraq. Countries such as India, Pakistan and Turkey, where domestic opposition to deployment in Iraq remains strong, remain uncommitted, and even with a UN resolution in place some may look for other reasons to stay home from a dangerous and open-ended mission. In the case of Turkey, which the Pentagon is hoping to convince to replace U.S. troops in the fiery "Sunni Triangle," the situation is made more complex also by signs of opposition to such a deployment from within the Iraqi Governing Council, whose Kurdish representatives fear the consequences of their historic enemy being given such significant stake in the new Iraq. And it's not clear whether France, Germany or Russia would contribute significant forces, either. Indeed, in its operational planning right now, the Pentagon has reduced its goal of some 50,000 new foreign troops in Iraq to a more modest 10,000-15,000. And even then, it's not yet clear from where these troops may come. But the strain on the U.S. budget and military of staying the course in Iraq may nonetheless press the case for compromise at the UN.