President George W. Bush has repeatedly pledged the U.S. will "liberate," not occupy Iraq and that American military action will pave the way for a free and self-governing post-Saddam era. But without a substantial multilateral effort after the war, one endorsed by the United Nations Security Council and enforced by an international security body like NATO, the U.S. will fail to bring either freedom or stability to Iraq. War against Saddam Hussein was the right course of action. But reconstituting Iraq, a large fractious nation in the heart of the Arab world, is a mission the U.S. cannot shoulder alone.
The Bush Administration cites America's sacrifice in "life and blood" as justification to go it alone, but seems motivated more by spite over failed pre-war diplomacy and by a deep-seated disdain for collective action. Pragmatic policy should not lose out to wounded pride and dodgy doctrines. Unilateral American military action may be sufficient to win the war, but it will fail to secure the peace.
Only by working through the United Nations will a post-Saddam governing authority - even a transitional one - avoid being seen as an Anglo-American puppet. Within a U.N. framework the U.S. will also be able to re-engage with Arab and Muslim states and seek their diplomatic and financial contributions. A U.N. role could also speed the transition to an all-Iraqi government, while at the same time legitimize a continuing American security role.
The U.N., not the U.S., has recent expertise in post-conflict reconstruction efforts, having carried the burden in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Haiti and elsewhere. Moreover, the U.N., through the oil for food program, already has deep experience in Iraq. A U.N. mandate will also provide a framework with which to address war crimes issues.
Beyond practical considerations, a prominent U.N. role will convince a skeptical world that America's aims are both limited and benign. Most important, a broad-based reconstruction effort forged in a U.N. Security Council mandate will help the U.S. re-engage the international community on the broader security agenda, from Korea and Iran to South Asia and the on-going war against terrorism and al-Qaeda.
Its hard to tell if the White House is listening, but calls for a prominent U.N. role are widespread and bipartisan coming most recently this week from Brent Scowcroft, architect of the first Gulf War.
Imagine the following scenario. Former CIA Director and super-hawk James Woolsey in Baghdad as part of a post-Saddam administration. The U.S. dollar becomes Iraq's currency. Iraqi government bureaus are assigned American "shadow ministers," most likely from the Pentagon. American military control of Iraq, even of civilian affairs, continue well into next year. Should Americans find such a scenario alarming, Arabs will surely find cause for outrage and fury.
Rather than fantasy, these are the post-Saddam plans some members of the Bush Administration are promoting. The debate in Washington will not only determine the shape of Iraq on "the day after," but the course of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Arab-Israeli peace efforts, energy security, defeating al-Qaeda and stemming Iran's quest for weapons of mass destruction all hinge on post-war success in Iraq. Since these projects rest more on cooperation than coercion, each will be more difficult if the U.S. rejects a broader international mandate for post-war Iraq.
Although the Bush Administration failed to obtain U.N. approval to disarm Iraq by force, the U.S. has another chance to turn to the international community and build a real coalition for the long, tough task ahead. Without broad international involvement, the U.S. will quickly find itself isolated diplomatically, burdened financially and mired in an Olympian nation-building effort that will leave many Americans to wonder why we went to war with Iraq in the first place.
By turning to the U.N., the President can put to rest suspicions that Anglo-American military action in Iraq will be followed by other coalitions of the willing. It is a doctrine much of the world never accepted to explain the failed diplomacy over Iraq, but instead see as reflecting a preference by the Bush Administration for unilateralism.
Make no mistake, America's challenge in Iraq and throughout the Middle East is not how to apply power (that's the easy part) - but how to gain influence and authority. By seeking a broad international mandate to re-build Iraq, Washington can narrow the yawning gap between its ever growing power and its fast diminishing authority.
The capture of Baghdad should not be confused with America's entry into Berlin, Tokyo or Seoul. Today's world is vastly different. The U.S. is not locked in a global struggle against an adversarial peer, and the Iraq campaign is not a total war. Iraq is a war of choice, a war fought for limited aims.
Those in this Administration who want to remake Iraq in America's image and send a vanguard of former CIA and Pentagon officials to take over in Baghdad have a sure-fire prescription for instability. Any post-Saddam arrangement determined, designed and dictated solely by Washington will quickly turn "liberation" into a neo-colonialist enterprise that will damage American interests and destabilize the region for years to come.
Lasensky is a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.