Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations’ top troubleshooter and mediator for more than a decade in Afghanistan, Iraq, South Africa and Haiti and the chair of a panel that produced a landmark report on the limits of UN peacekeeping, has often been an incisive and unrelenting critic of American foreign policies. But for many around the world, he ranks as a touchstone wise man in international affairs. He was recently invited to join The Elders, a small private group of global statesmen and former government leaders.
Brahimi, now a director’s visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he is framing some thoughts into a possible book, is an Algerian who began his diplomatic career in Southeast Asia, representing the country’s independence movement against the French from 1956 to 1961. He went on to become ambassador of independent Algeria in London, Cairo and Khartoum, and undersecretary general of the Arab League. From 1991 to1993 he was Algeria’s foreign minister, before turning to international service as a leading UN envoy and administrator in countries in crisis.
Educated in law and politics in Algeria and in France, where he now has a home, Brahimi was a major player through the late 1990s in negotiations with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and returned in 2004 as the UN representative in Baghdad responsible for helping form a transitional Iraqi government under US occupation. He is also remembered for his shepherding of Afghan factions through the Bonn agreement that restructured the country after the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan.
In a conversation over several hours in Princeton, Brahimi spoke about what should come next in Iraq and how the regional powers must step up, in their own self-interests, to unite in helping the Iraqis establish stability. He assessed the evolution of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, suggested how the US miscalculated in Afghanistan and Washington’s failure to address effectively the core crisis of the Palestinians.
The Iraqis, capable and educated, really had it in them to make the country work. What happened?
What happened is that after the invasion took place, I don’t think they [the United States] made one decision that was right. Paul Bremer is already defending himself, saying it was not I who decided to dissolve the army and so on. Somebody told me–I don’t know if this is true or not–that Yeltsin, when he took over and was very close to the Americans, thought of dissolving the Communist Party. And the Americans told him, You’re crazy. Don’t do that. That’s the state. And yet, they go to Iraq and they dissolve the army, which was part of the system. And the Baath party.
Good people were pushed out?
Absolutely. The Iraqis had been through regime change many times. They know how to do it. You put aside 100 military officers, all the ministers and the secretary generals of the ministries and so on, and the country continues. Now the Shia who came with the Americans, they were the most sectarian elements in the Shia–those who came from Iran. The Americans handed the country over to them. They would have found it difficult to dissolve the army, so the Americans did it for them.
When I was there [in 2004] I went to Mosul, and people told me, We have no teachers. Mosul is the city in Iraq for culture. In the Iraqi system, just like in the Soviet Union, you could not possibly get hired for anything if you were not a member of the party. That includes teachers. I spoke to Bremer and said, This is not possible. Teachers, engineers, have been kicked out because they were members of the Baath.