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Weissman: Why Should the UN Buy the Iraq We Broke?

Pottery Barn Blow Out:
Why Should the UN Buy the Iraq We Broke?

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Wednesday 28 April 2004

Colin Powell, who plays the soft, sensitive shill in Washington's globally ambitious cop shop, used to quote what he mistakenly called the Pottery Barn rule: You Break It, You Own It. But now that American bombs, boots, and blunders have shattered Iraq, Powell - and the president he allegedly warned - badly want the United Nations to help pick up the pieces.

How does the multilateral shift play in Paris, Berlin, and Moscow? How will it wash in Najaf and Fallujah?

A fortune rides on the answers, and not just the million-dollar kickbacks that thieving Ahmad Chalabi and his neo-conspirators might lose to the backhand mob at UNScam. I'm talking real money, the many billions it will cost to fight, and most likely lose, a long, drawn-out counter-insurgency in Iraq, and wherever else it spreads.

Let bleeding heart wimps count the added tens of thousands of Middle Eastern men, women, and children who will die, to say nothing of our homegrown grunts. I'm talking real losses, the kind that hit American taxpayers where they vote, in their wallets and pocketbooks.

No wonder Mr. Bush is sending Colin Powell back to the Old European with hat in hand, looking for a new Security Council resolution and the promise of NATO troops. A realist, if only when it comes to miscounting ballots, our commander-in-chief has heeded the pleas of his political gurus to do something - anything - even if it means eating crow with his freedom fries.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Far more consistent in his multilaterialism, John Kerry has put his eggs in the same basket, as have many of my fellow pundits, newspaper editors, and academics. One word to all: Don't count on it. While Bush and Powell might get a new UN mandate if they don't overplay their hand, no one should expect many new non-American boots on the ground. Nor should we expect Iraqis to give up their insurrection just because the UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi blesses what will remain an American occupation.

Had Saddam Hussein truly posed an immediate threat to anyone but his own people, had Mr. Bush mobilized the kind of coalition his dad put together for Gulf War I, had the UN immediately legitimized a caretaker government as Brahimi did for the Americans in Afghanistan, and had Iraqis been permitted to vote even half a year ago, the story might have worked out Washington's way. But coming now in the wake of a bloody cock-up, a quick, cosmetic UN fix won't fool anyone, except perhaps American voters.

For UN officials and the Europeans, the question to Washington is clear: Will your new ploy work?

American officials can argue all they want that a stable Iraq is in everyone's interest. They are preaching to the converted. No matter how much some European leaders might secretly want to stick it to Mr. Bush for his former arrogance, no one on this side of the Atlantic wants another failed, terror-prone Islamic state. But unless they believe Washington will do what's needed to win Iraqi support, few other than Tony Blair will be willing to go down with America's sinking ship.

For growing numbers of Iraqis, the big question to Washington is even clearer: When will you leave?

Yes, Iraqis want security and have wanted the occupation to provide it. But how much faith in American troops can the average Iraqi now have after the siege of Fallujah? Do they see our Marines there as cops on the beat or angry avengers out to make heads roll?

Yes, "responsible Iraqis" look to American-led troops to keep neighboring Iran and Turkey at bay, as Middle East historian Juan Cole told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. But when coalition forces surround the holy city of Najaf to kill or capture the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who do those Iraqis see as the greater threat - their neighbors or their occupiers?

What Iraqis want, as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has made abundantly clear, is a simple, clear, concrete sign that Washington intends to go. All Washington gives them is words.

"We are anxious to give sovereignty back to the Iraqi people," said Secretary Powell in a recent interview. "We don't want to stay there in the current position that we are in now where we are running the country. We want Iraq to run the country."

But American actions tell Iraqis the opposite. Washington is now building 14 new military bases. Washington is sending in more troops. Washington controls Iraqi oil. And, so far, Washington refuses to give a new, supposedly sovereign government any real say over either our troops on their soil or their own armed forces and economic decision-making.

What Iraqis see is a huge American Embassy with a newly named Viceroy - John Negroponte - who served in Vietnam in the 1960s, supplied the Nicaraguan Contras from his post in Honduras, and - as UN Ambassador - lied and schemed to build support for invading Iraq.

What Iraqis do not see is any serious preparations for the national elections Washington has promised for no later than January 2005, but looks increasingly likely to put off once again.

Few Iraqis would seriously claim to understand how our president's mind works. But they hardly believe that he came all that way just to settle for an Islamic Iran Lite, which is probably the best he could get from a democratic election in which over 60% of the voters will be Shiite Muslims.

Perhaps Mr. Bush did not know the Shiite numbers going in. Perhaps he misheard their name and thought they were just local nasties who needed sorting out. But Iraqis can hardly believe that he was ever all that keen on bringing even Florida-style democracy to anywhere in the Middle East, whether to post-Saddam Iraq, Hosni Mubarak's Egypt, or family friends in Saudi Arabia.

Nor would most Iraqis believe that Mr. Bush worried all that much about the Weapons on Mass Destruction that Saddam had already destroyed, or about links between Saddam and Osama, who - as everyone knew - would have delighted to see each other skewered. From what Iraqis can see, they would have to conclude that Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney cared far more about getting the military bases they are now building, the oil they now control, and the lucrative contracts their friends now enjoy.

Why, then, should Iraqis believe that Bush intends to leave their country to them, when - so far at least - he clearly does not? Until he or his successor makes that decision, a growing numbers of Iraqis will fight for their independence. Why should Europe or the United Nations want to pay the price in blood and money to fight a no-win colonial war against them?


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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