On August 18th, one day before the horrifying bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, President Bush revised his earlier characterization of the fighting in Iraq. The once-swaggering commander-in-chief, who strutted on the decks of the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare victory, now allows that combat operations are still underway.
It always seemed premature to speak of the period in Iraq as one of "postwar." But that didn't stop the White House from rushing to declare that the conflict was concluded. However, the steady stream of American and Iraqi casualties, the increasingly sophisticated guerrilla attacks on Iraqi infrastructure--and, now, the UN headquarters--suggest that the Iraq war continues, and that only its conventional battlefield phase is over. Even the American military commander in Iraq recently described Iraqi attacks as classic "guerrilla warfare," a term Administration officials--until just recently--have been loath to use.
What is needed now is not--as many are demanding--an escalation of US forces but, rather, an acknowledgment that the US and its small band of allies, do not have the resources, legitimacy or even competence to stabilize Iraq. Instead of entrenching a Pentagon-led occupation, the White House should use this perilous moment to seek internationalization of the rebuilding and administration of the country, which can only happen if the process is turned over to the UN.
As Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, reminds, "The US-UK war and occupation were and remain illegal." By agreeing to participate under the authority of that occupation force, the UN, unfortunately, is providing a political fig leaf for an illegal occupation. If the United Nations is to be perceived by the Iraqi people as a legitimate and stabilizing force, it will need to play a genuinely independent role and disassociate itself from the US occupation. And so as to avoid the trap of internationalization on the cheap, the UN will need real resources--and control--in the reconstruction process.
But time is running short. Listen to terrorism expert Jessica Stern: The "bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was the latest evidence that America has taken a country that was not a terrorist threat and turned it into one," Stern wrote recently in the New York Times. "The occupation has given disparate groups from various countries a common battlefield on which to fight a common enemy...Most ominously, Al-Qaeda's influence may be growing."
We are now witnessing the tragic unfolding of consequences that The Nation--and millions opposed to war--warned against: the fueling of anti-Americanism in the Islamic world; the undermining of the global fight against terrorism and the deaths of innocent US soldiers and Iraqi civilians.
We also argued that occupation would mean more spending on war and less on homeland security and numerous unmet domestic needs. The Administration will continue to deny what it has created in Iraq. But shifting public sentiment suggests an opening: a recent PIPA/Knowledge Networks poll found that 64 percent of Americans want the UN to take the lead in rebuilding Iraq.
As long as the US is an occupying power--US v. International Jihad--the harder it will be to pull together the international resources, will and expertise required for the long-term project of stabilizing Iraq, reestablishing true self-government in that country, and combating terrorism around the world.