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Luers: U.S. Seems More Willing to Give UN Expanded Role in Iraq

Interviewee: William H. Luers, President, United Nations Association of the United States of America
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
August 15, 2007

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William H. Luers, a former U.S. ambassador who heads the United Nations Association of the USA, says the recent Security Council resolution authorizing increased UN diplomatic activity in Iraq marks a change in U.S. policy. He attributes this largely to the presence of a new U.S. ambassador and the new UN secretary-general, who recognize the brokers’ role the UN could play. Says Luers: “A UN team has to be ready to head out to talk to the Iranians, have some tough talks with the Turks, and particularly with the Saudis on their support for the Sunni insurgents, and begin a healing process.”

There is a flurry of activity in the UN Security Council and the U.S. government concerning increasing UN activity in Iraq. Can you describe what’s happened?

Every August, the UN Security Council has had to reapprove a presence of the United Nations in Iraq. As you remember, in August of 2003, the UN mission [in Baghdad] was blown up and Sergio Vieira de Mello, the special UN envoy, was killed along with many others and the mission shutdown. They renewed their presence a year later and have had a full level presence of fifty to sixty personnel every year since.  They have done some work in the humanitarian area and were very important in organizing elections in 2005. Of course, special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi played a role putting together the first government in 2005.

And this year, in a move backed by the United States and other countries, the Security Council passed a resolution which in effect increased the mandate for the United Nations, both internally and regionally, and authorized an additional thirty or so personnel in the mission in Baghdad. What the main change amounts to is an increased mandate for internal negotiations to try to find a political reconciliation. And the role the United Nations may play in the neighborhood could produce more support from the Iranians, the Saudis, the Syrians, and the Turks to bring the internal forces more into line and trying to reduce the violence.

Is this due to a change in U.S. policy?

I think so, and I think there are a number of reasons for it. First is that the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, who replaced the more confrontational John Bolton late last year, has turned out to be a diplomat who knows the region, had served both in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has a feel for the culture and the politics like very few others in the business today. [He] has been pushing for not only more and better diplomacy as a counterpoint to the military force, but also for a greater role for the United Nations since the U.S. has some obvious disabilities in dealing with such countries as Syria and Iran.

And he wrote an article in the New York Times on July 21 that signaled a shift, right?

He wrote an op-ed which laid out, basically, a U.S. policy supportive of a larger UN role. In fact, he went probably further than the resolution and maybe went further than many in the Bush administration would want him to go. I’m told he cleared it with the people he had to clear it with, and he has a good relationship with the president, which is unusual, and I think he feels he has a role to play in shaping a more supportive U.S. policy of a UN role.

Another factor is, I think—with all the residue of the strained relationship between former Secretary General Kofi Annan and President Bush there were complicated feelings and not a lot of trust—is that the current Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has established a relationship with the president and Bush feels better about working with the United Nations on this extremely complicated issue.

Third, I think, the United States Congress is beginning to realize the limits of U.S. power and the Republicans are becoming somewhat panicked about the situation in Iraq and how it will affect elections. There obviously is a growing sense in the country that the military solution isn’t working. In answer to the question, “What else can be done?,” I think Khalilzad is one of the first people who has a sense of what can be done, what must be done in the region.

How do the Iraqis feel about this? Do you have any idea?

They are very nervous about anybody dealing with their particular situation, especially Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki, who has a complicated relationship with virtually everybody. The Iranians believe he should remain because he’s a Shiite and Maliki is strongly supportive of the Shiite majority rule, as are we, but the rest of the neighborhood is somewhat concerned about his ability to lead. I think he personally is nervous about an effort by outsiders to help.

Is there any likely candidate to lead the UN mission?

There are two aspects to the UN mission. Whether they are linked or separated is a big issue. One is who will run the mission in Baghdad?  It’s a complicated position and internally, in the United Nations, there are a lot of people who are opposed to increasing the presence in Baghdad. Many of the professionals would like the United Nations to pull out. The second aspect is its role in the region, the diplomatic role the United Nations is uniquely equipped to carry out because they talk to all the countries and groups in the region. They can even talk to Hezbollah and Hamas if necessary. That could be a separate sort of mission with a head or maybe several envoys who would actually conduct diplomacy with Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, if and when the United States pulls its forces out of there, the Saudis, the Iranians, and the Turks will be staring each other in the face in Iraq, all with very different agendas, and that could mean greatly expanded violence in the region. None of those countries has an interest in that so the question is how does the United Nations play on that and try to get some help, some interest, on the part of the individual countries to try to work towards a more peaceful environment that will enable the United States to reduce its forces?

Of course, in the United Nations, it’s the Sunnis that have the much larger voice than the Shiites because Iran is not a powerful player in the United Nations, right?

Right. The Sunni nations include Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and certainly Egypt. These countries are mainly Sunni. Although this is defined as an exclusively Sunni/Shiite problem, increasingly it isn’t being played out that way in Iraq. I think U.S. policy is to stand firmly behind Saudi Arabia against Iran and try to convince the Gulf States that the United States is firmly against Iran, while at the same time trying to support the majority rule in Iraq, which is Shiite. We’re in a complicated bind of “Where do we stand on this religious dispute?” and I’m not sure we have resolved it strategically or tactically as to where we come out on it.

And I must say it’s confusing for Americans too because the United States really seems to want a leader in Iraq who can reconcile with all the various factions and that doesn’t seem to be Maliki’s strong point.

The United States is caught in problems that they have created by pressing so hard for elections and getting this government in place, but it is a government that doesn’t have the resolve and can’t do what has to be done internally to stabilize the situation. Yet the United States is committed to this democratically elected government, which represents the majority population, and my sense is that Maliki can’t deliver. But what’s the alternative? Can you go around replacing governments you had encouraged? That’s the bind the United States is in.

A UN team has to be ready to head out to talk to the Iranians, have some tough talks with the Turks, and particularly with the Saudis, on their support for the Sunni insurgents, and begin a healing process. The United Nations could talk tougher to Saudi Arabia than we can, the United Nations can engage Iran in ways that we can’t, and the United Nations can, I think, take a different tack with Turkey if they have a good negotiating team. In a way, because of the peculiar nature of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, because of the non-relationship of the United States and Iran, and the very complex relationship with Turkey, it’s extremely difficult for us to play, right now, an ameliorating role in the region.

When do you think we will know the makeup of this UN team?

I don’t know that. I mean I think that they probably will appoint a new special representative to Baghdad in the next month or so, when they sort out what the regional negotiations will look like, because it’s not clear how to approach this. They have to sort of explore it, country by country, finding the individuals in each country who were prepared to talk about it.

The United States hasn’t said much since this Security Council resolution was passed. Why is that?

My sense is the U.S. government is quite divided on this. I don’t think there is a unified position on “What next?” There is the whole question on how this new United Nations involvement is going to feel politically, whether the administration is going to be persuasive about the surge and the current strategy. I don’t think that this administration has been terribly focused on the role of regional players in Iraq. But if, in fact, the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report, pressures from the Senate, and the looming elections begin to play out in the White House, we may see more and more interest on the part of this nation to find a more aggressive diplomatic approach to these issues.

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