Peter Feaver, author of the widely-acclaimed Armed Servants (Harvard, 2003), discusses the pros and cons of a wider role for the U.N. in Iraq in today’s WaPo. He sees this possibility as a decidedly mixed bag:

This may indeed be the best of a bad set of choices. The United States desperately needs more troops to send to Iraq, at a minimum to relieve those units already deployed there when their rotation comes due in a few months. Efforts to secure meaningful commitments outside the U.N. framework have been disappointing and are essentially exhausted. A greater U.N. role may well be the only way to persuade other states to join.

In taking this move, the Bush administration is making a large concession to its critics both domestically and abroad, who have been harping for a greater U.N. role. Thus far, however, those critics have largely invoked the U.N. as a matter of theological commitment, without making a persuasive case for how it could really help. In the next few months, we will see whether there is more to the U.N. option than a knee-jerk preference for the reassuring rhetoric of multilateralism or whether the critics have simply avoided dealing with six tough questions a larger U.N. role raises.

He elaborates on these and then reaches an interesting conclusion:

Still, there are two reasons to be optimistic about Iraq, and even about increasing the U.N.’s role there. Iraq is probably a must-win mission for the United Nations; the failure of its members to reach a consensus in the spring of 2003 pushed it to the brink of irrelevancy. If it finally steps up to the plate in Iraq and then fails again, it will largely lose its role as an arbiter of major global security challenges. Even more, Iraq is a must-win mission for the Bush administration, which clearly appreciates the electoral implications and is taking drastic steps to improve the prospects there. We can only hope members of the U.N. also understand the gravity of the situation.

This piece is definitely a must-read.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Gunther says:

    Just a few thoughts on the six points raised in the article…

    First, do other countries really want to provide sizable pots of money and substantial numbers of high-quality troops, and will they do so in a hurry once an appropriate U.N. cover is established?

    Many countries probably are reluctant to do this, but for those who are motivated to provide help to do so while allowing the U.S. to retain control in Iraq might be seen as stupid.

    Second, will any troops and money that are provided be additions, or will they merely be one-for-one replacements by the United States, itself eager to reduce a burden?

    This is true, but that is really up to the administration. If they want to “cut and run”, then they’ll treat it as a one-or-one exchange. Other countries aren’t likely to want to become involved under this scenario. Rather, they’ll want some assurances that their presence might actually improve things, which is far more likely if the net amount of troops and/or money increases.

    Third, will U.N.-provided troops be able to handle the quasi-guerrilla war environment in Iraq? For that matter, when is the last time the United Nations did a quasi-guerrilla war well?

    The obvious response to this is, when was the last time the United States did a quasi-guerrilla war well? Vietnam didn’t work out. There is a problem here, obviously, but unless you can demonstrate that the U.S. is particularly good at this sort of warfare, there doesn’t seem to be any clear disadvantage to having the U.N. involved.

    Fourth, will the U.N. mandate really provide more internal and external legitimacy?

    The outside world may well continue to blame the U.S. for present and future problems in Iraq, but this is hardly an argument against getting a U.N. mandate. You shouldn’t confuse judgements concerning the cause of problems in Iraq with judgements concerning the methods used to solve those problems. As for the internal legitimacy, what is the evidence that “Those who are opposing U.S. efforts to rebuild Iraq will oppose everybody else’s efforts too”? Isn’t a large part of the problem perceived U.S. control over Iraq?

    Fifth, has anyone seriously addressed the downside of importing Security Council vetoes into the management of Iraq?

    This really is a silly argument. Firstly, the current problems in Iraq weren’t caused by “planning mistakes that derived from the veto-bound interagency system within the United States”. They were caused by planning mistakes made by the inexperienced and arrogant team surrounding Bush. Secondly, the U.N. Security Council operates with vetoes sometimes. That’s just the way it is. But the Security Council obviously isn’t going to be running Iraq on a day-to-day basis.

    Sixth, has anyone proposed a coherent plan for taking steps that the current U.S.-led coalition is not already taking?

    Even if you assume that the U.S. is doing all of the things that need to be done (and I don’t), they aren’t being done well. Any help should be welcome. In any event, the “U.N. plan” obviously hasn’t been developed yet because so far the U.S. has insisted on doing everything on its own. What could a U.N. coalition do that the U.S.-led coalition hasn’t done? Let’s see… One, increase the amount of money. Two, increase the number of troops on the ground. Three, increase humanitarian aid. Four, increase the Iraqi role by allowing Iraqis to choose their own leaders rather than have them hand-picked by a U.S. consul. This would also help gain legitimacy for any U.N.-led rebuilding efforts. Five, monitor how rebuilding money is spent so that aid efforts go towards actual improvements and construction, and aren’t being used to inflate profits margins for U.S. corporations. I could go on.