Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that the Bush administrations march toward war was a diplomatic train wreck that left it with limited international support. The reluctance to carefully craft a diplomatic strategy alienated many around the world, and failed in bringing along ambivalent partners, she says.
Bronson also advocated giving the United Nations a role in post-conflict Iraq. Given the current acrimony between the U.S. and the U.N., it will be all the more difficult to argue for turning this over in one form or another to the U.N. But doing so would be good for us, good for Iraq, and good for the U.N.
She made the comments originally in an online forum at nytimes.com with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on March 20, 2003. It has been edited in question and answer format here.
Q. Rachel, do you think the Bush administration could have done a better job in trying to get Security Council backing for the war in Iraq? And does it matter that it did not get that backing?
A. We have seen a diplomatic train wreck.
The French and Germans have been real contributors to it. But I'm going to focus on the U.S. side of things, since that is the question.
The Bush administration came to power with a notion that "if we say it, they will follow." Many in this administration believed that President Clinton did not show resolve and commitment and therefore did not lead the international community. This administration decided to pursue an alternative course. They alienated many around the world, but even worse, they did not build a strategy for bringing along ambivalent partners.
The second problem is that this lack of strategy led them to make policy decisions that have been contrary to alliance building. The doctrine of pre-emption alienated many around the world who we would have liked to have been helpful to us.
The third problem is that they never got "on message." They kept changing what this was about— disarmament, regime change, terrorism, or democracy. You can weave a story together about how all of this fits, but they never did.
Fourth, they never put together a compelling vision about post-conflict Iraq. Many around the world believe we have no idea what we are getting ourselves into, and will leave a mess on Iraq's neighbors' doorsteps when we decide things are too hard, or other problems are more compelling. Only very, very recently did the administration begin talking about post-conflict Iraq, and unfortunately it has been too little too late.
Q. On the question of Iraq after the war, what are some of the geopolitical implications of a war with Iraq? Do you think President Bush is failing to recognize some of these implications? Would an independent Kurdistan be a disaster?
A. The current policy of containment was becoming a disaster. It required the continuation of economic sanctions which targeted the Iraqi middle class and the most innocent and vulnerable in that society. Saddam built palaces while his people had nothing. Sanctions are an immoral policy, and we are right to change it. Unfortunately, lifting sanctions would only have allowed Saddam to continue to build up and threaten us and his neighbors.
Also, the heavy American troop presence that containment required was becoming a liability for us and our partners. It was giving succor to the region's radicals who recruited on the message of Americans in the holy land (Saudi Arabia). Osama bin Laden is the most extreme example.
The United States has been containing not only Iraq, but its neighbors as well. This was a terrible policy.
I bring all this up because it's not a choice between an acceptable policy and another one. The current policy was bad for the U.S., bad for the Iraqis, and bad for the region.
Does George Bush know what he's getting into? If things go well, many of the worst scenarios will be avoided. It will be hard to march in protest in Cairo and Paris if there is dancing in Basra.
But getting Iraq back on its feet will mean an initial commitment to ensuring "law and order," and that requires the United States to use its soldiers to "police and pacify." That is something the president actually campaigned against. I hope the president is committed to this. He is saying the right things, but our half-hearted efforts in Afghanistan make our friends and allies nervous.
Other risks: the story of burning oil fields is very worrisome. Iraqis will need their oil to rebuild. It will be very costly even with Iraq producing oil at full capacity. The estimated cost of reconstruction is between 25 billion and 100 billion dollars. Iraq produces only about 12 billion to 14 billion dollars a year in oil, in current prices.
There are risks about what the neighbors will do. Turkey and Iran must be encouraged to stay out.
There are risks about what the Iraqis will do to each other, given the decades of brutality they have lived through.
These problems are manageable, but it will take skillful diplomacy.
Q. Will Iran view a U.S.-dominated Iraq next door as a serious threat to its national security, thus leading to an acceleration in its plans to obtain nuclear weapons? And do you think it will encourage the Shiites in Basra to break away?
A. By all accounts, Iran has accelerated its nuclear program without the United States sitting in Iraq.
Iran lives in a difficult neighborhood, with Pakistan, India, and Iraq all within striking reach. If Iraq can be effectively disarmed, it should ease some Iranian concerns. That is why Iran has been notably quiet.
The Shiites in Iraq have repeatedly shown themselves to be Iraqi nationals. Saddam was worried they would fight with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. They didn't. I think the more likely scenario is that the Shia will look for fair representation in any new government, not to break away from Iraq.
Q. President Bush last week endorsed the "road map" for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. How can the world expect peace to occur between Palestinians and Israelis when racial hatred towards Jews is so deeply ingrained in the minds of many Arabs?
And the reverse. Do you think that after the regime change in Iraq, the Bush administration will press Sharon on settlement activity? And if so, why?
A. When the peace process was going well, Qatar opened an economic interest office for the Israeli government. When things were going well, Jordanian-Israeli trade was increasing and Israeli tour guides operated in Jordan. Hardly a racial hatred. I would cast it more as political anger by most, and bigoted anti-semitism by some.
Ideas on both sides have evolved over time, and evolved more quickly when political conditions were more positive.
Some in the administration appear very committed to turning attention to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. [Deputy Defense Secretary] Paul Wolfowitz has directed his attention to the problem of settlements. Others in the administration do not think there's anything the U.S. can do about what's going on. As with everything else in this administration, there will be a policy battle on the issue that we will all have to watch.
Q. On an Israeli-Palestinian peace, do you expect that pressure will be brought by Washington on Israel to stop the settlements simultaneous with the Palestinians agreeing to halt terror?
A. No. the president has been very clear in his statements of late that once terror stops, then Israel will be pressured to stop the settlements. The administration views these events occurring sequentially.
Q. Does that undercut the "road map" formula?
A. Yes, parts of it anyway.
Q. In your opinion, how should Iraq be ruled after the war ends?
A. In the short term, the United States will have to be in charge, and by short term I mean weeks, perhaps a couple of months. Law and order will have to be ensured and humanitarian assistance provided. The power must be kept on and the water purified. The Iraqi ministries can continue to function (minus the ministers), but we cannot afford a vacuum to form.
However, as quickly as possible, we must design a mechanism by which we hand over political responsibility (although the Iraqis are likely to expect us to continue to ensure security) to the Iraqis. In Afghanistan, a very respected, internationally-recognized figure took the helm, working hand-in-glove with the U.N. This model is a good place to start.
Given the current acrimony between the U.S. and the U.N., it will be all the more difficult to argue for turning this over in one form or another to the U.N. But doing so would be good for us, good for Iraq, and good for the U.N.
It would be good for the U.S. because we will need help. We will need NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] operating, and they are less likely to operate as an arm of the American government, and more likely to do so under U.N. auspices. U.N. cover will also help bring others in to undertake some of the tasks that America doesn't do particularly well.
It would be good for Iraq, because it will help to mitigate fears that this is a colonial land grab. It will reduce the attraction of Iraqi Islamists and others who may seek to undermine new political arrangements.
It would be good for the United Nations, because it will give it an important mission on the heels of recent events which have made the U.N. appear irrelevant.