Millions of Americans watching the buildup to war in Iraq and the debates in the United Nations concluded that the U.N. was impossibly wrongheaded, determined to thwart the United States in its effort to make the world safe from Saddam Hussein. After all, President Bush, and the globally respected secretary of state, Colin Powell, argued strenuously that the U.S. way was the right way, if only an obstinate U.N. would listen.
Looking back now, long after the easy march to Baghdad unraveled into looting, murder, kidnapping and general destruction with no clear resolution, perhaps some Americans are wondering what would have happened if their leaders had listened instead of argued. No doubt, they now have a very different image of the United Nations. Unfortunately, so does much of the rest of the world.
The standing of the United Nations, which began to erode after the collapse of the Soviet Union made the United States the only superpower, has plummeted in the post-9/11 period, and the events of one year ago remind us of the depths to which it has fallen, in the Muslim world in particular. Last August, the United Nations team led by Sergio Vieira de Mello, the secretary general's special representative in Iraq, was getting nervous about the widespread perception that the U.N. mission was an adjunct of what had rapidly become a very unpopular U.S. occupation. Indeed, on the morning of Aug. 19, which would see 22 of my colleagues die in a vicious terrorist attack, the chiefs of communication of all the U.N. agencies in Baghdad had met in an emergency session to hammer out a plan to counter this perception of our role in Iraq.
Nothing we might have done in this regard would have deterred the fanatics who blew up our headquarters that fateful day, killing the widely respected Vieira de Mello and many others on his team, but the lack of a strong Iraqi, Arab and Muslim outcry against this atrocity chilled us to the bone, even as it revealed the ferocity of the anger toward the U.N. That anger was based, essentially, on the perception in the Arab and Muslim world that the U.N. was unable to contain or even condemn U.S. and Israel military excesses, the most explosive of which were the invasion of Iraq and the brutal Israeli suppression of the second Palestinian intifada, which began in the fall of 2000.
In a rare challenge to the United States, the U.N. Security Council had, in fact, refused to authorize the Iraq war. This, however, was quickly forgotten by Muslims when the U.N. effectively sanctioned the invasion after the fact with resolutions that accepted U.S. occupation goals in Iraq.
Ever since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Muslims have considered the U.N. attitude toward Iraq as the epitome of the world body's profound double standards. That aggression had led the Security Council to authorize a devastating war in 1991 and to also impose its most punitive sanctions ever. UNICEF estimated that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children were associated with the sanctions, though other studies put the figure closer to 300,000. In 1996, Madeleine Albright, then U.S. ambassador to the U.N., told "60 Minutes," "The price is worth it," a statement she later said she regretted. The punishments the U.N. meted out to Iraq outraged Muslims, because the organization had for more than a quarter of a century allowed Israel to occupy and expand control of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese land with impunity. That 1991 war, accompanied by the stationing of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, was one of the primary catalysts for our age of global terrorism, which began with the World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
The new Iraq war is seen by even the most moderate Muslims as taking the double standard to a new high. While American leaders argued that the war would liberate Iraq from a dangerous dictator and remove a threat of weapons of mass destruction, Muslims saw it as a crusade by U.S. neoconservatives to crush and occupy Islamic countries, in the guise of fighting terrorism. And Muslims were even more infuriated when the Security Council, anxious not to further antagonize the world's lone superpower, subsequently legitimized a war and occupation that most of the rest of the world had clamorously opposed.
Muslims see the threats of military intervention against another Muslim regime, Sudan's, as the latest example of that double standard, pointing to how the United States and other powers stood by as a terrible genocide unfolded in Rwanda, killing 800,000 people in just 100 days. A year later, more than 7,000 Bosnians under U.N. protection were slaughtered as the major powers looked on.
Partisans from the Muslim-Western divide will argue that the U.N. obstructs the achievement of American goals or is subservient to them. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between -- but is much closer to the Muslim perception, I would argue. It could hardly be otherwise. The United States is the world's mightiest nation, and U.N. member states and Secretary General Kofi Annan know that without a close relationship with the United States, the U.N. would be irrelevant to global security. But there's the rub: If that relationship is too close, it will even more surely doom the United Nations, whose greatest strength is a commitment to building global consensus on vital issues.
Ironically, it was in Iraq that the perception of too close a relationship between the United States and U.N. was so far off-base. The close, early relationship that Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian who was considered a brilliant negotiator of post-conflict nation-building, had formed with L. Paul Bremer, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, had dissipated by late July 2003. The contact between them became intermittent once the CPA could deal directly with the Iraqis it had appointed, with Vieira de Mello's help, to the Governing Council. Vieira de Mello was deeply dismayed by occupation tactics as well as the arrest and conditions of detention of the thousands imprisoned at Abu Ghraib prison. And he argued that a vote on a new constitution was vital.
The low point in the relationship had come at the end of that July, when the United States, backed by Britain, blocked in the Security Council the creation of a full-fledged Iraq U.N. mission. Vieira de Mello believed such a mission was vital. And later, even as the United States pushed strongly for the U.N. to stay in Iraq in the face of terrible danger after the Aug. 19 bombing that took Vieira de Mello's life, the Bush administration continued to refuse to consider any U.N. role as it planned the creation of post-war Iraqi institutions. The November 2003 agreement on which all current transitional arrangements are based does not even mention the U.N.
Clearly, the Bush administration wanted a U.N. presence in occupied Iraq as a legitimizing factor -- not as a partner with a vast reservoir of post-conflict peace-building experience that could be used to bring the occupation to an early end. Those of us in Baghdad last summer knew that such a partnership was essential to averting a major conflagration in Iraq.
The United States did finally turn to the U.N. in January, when Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, created a real crisis by mobilizing tens of thousands of protesters to campaign against the plan to choose the new interim government without elections. But the U.N. that the Bush administration turned to was not the Security Council -- where major players such as France, China and Russia would have demanded major changes in U.S. occupation policies. Instead, Washington turned to Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, his special Mideast envoy. Even that proved cosmetic, since neither the interim president nor the prime minister were the choices of Annan and Brahimi.
The Bush administration places relentless pressure on countries to support even the most questionable aspects of its war on terrorism, regardless of the damage that such support would pose for those countries' stability. The current drive to get a U.N. mission operating in Iraq again under the protection of forces from Muslim countries is a perfect example. Such a presence in Iraq would pose excruciating risks to both the U.N. and any countries that might comply, especially Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The United States is not desisting. Once again, it is pushing its short-term goals at the expense of longer-term stability, and has learned little from the cataclysm that befell the U.N. a year ago this month.
Washington shows no interest in addressing its deep rift with moderate Muslims, even though it surely must know that it will never be able to win the war against Islamic terrorism through a military strategy alone, without the support of this billion-strong community. Except for a tiny fringe, Muslims want no truck with terror, which has wrought such enormous suffering for them.
The United Nations is an irreplaceable institution because it struggles, however imperfectly, to reach global consensus on the most critical issues facing humanity. It is that universality that allows it to confer legitimacy on the most contentious enterprises. The terrorists who blew up the mission in Iraq dealt a severe blow to U.N. fortunes in the Middle East, but much more lasting damage is being done to the U.N. ideal by demands for it to see the world only through American eyes.
Ultimately its capital will be squandered and its resolutions rendered worthless for large chunks of humanity, particularly Muslims.
Member states and the secretary general should see this eroding legitimacy as the greatest challenge the organization faces. But they will be unable to make effective headway unless the United States itself recognizes that it needs, in its own interest, to show greater respect for the United Nations.
A beginning must be made with Iraq. The continuing conflict there is laying the groundwork for a cataclysm more fearsome than any we have seen so far. The United States should recognize that it can never fulfill its spectacularly ambitious agenda in Iraq. There will be no peace as long as U.S. troops remain, because the region's people are convinced that Americans are there to pursue oil and military bases while supporting Israel. Both presidential candidates should be considering how, after the November election, they can turn to the U.N. Security Council for leadership. A new political and military mission including France, other antiwar states and Muslim countries is the only hope for peace in Iraq. Even then, it will not be easy.
Salim Lone, who worked for the United Nations for 20 years, was director of communications for the U.N. mission in Iraq headed by the late Sergio Vieira de Mello. He is a Muslim from Kenya.