Council Expert Says State Department and Pentagon at Odds Over Postwar Iraq Policy; Asserts

April 1, 2003 1:53 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Arthur C. Helton, the Council on Foreign Relations’ humanitarian affairs expert, warns that the Bush administration’s go-it-alone policy has caused a “crisis of legitimacy” that has blocked many potential donors from participating in post-war reconstruction in Iraq. He also says that divisions between the State Department and the Pentagon on who should run post-war aid efforts have helped fragment planning.

More From Our Experts

“No one country, even one as powerful as the United States, can hope to do all that has to be done to create a new, prosperous, and democratic Iraq,” says Helton, Senior Fellow for Refugee Studies and Preventive Action and Director of Peace and Conflict Studies. “And to see this solely as a U.S. initiative would raise the specter of a prolonged military occupation, and inflame passions in the region.”

More on:



He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on March 31, 2003.

Other Interviews

What is the status of post-war planning?

More From Our Experts

It is still quite fragmented. There is uncertainty over who the principal architect of post-war planning will be. It could simply be the United States and the United Kingdom as occupying powers. Or it could be placed under United Nations auspices, or perhaps some combination of the two, with a dash of Iraqi opposition elements.

What is the thinking in Washington on this?

More on:



There are different sentiments within the administration. There are elements, particularly in the State Department and Treasury, which would like to share the reconstruction and rehabilitation burden with the international community, and try to ensure that financial resources and expertise are marshaled from a wide array of sources. Indeed, Secretary of State [Colin] Powell recently wrote to Defense Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld, urging that State oversee humanitarian assistance, an outcome that would help internationalize the effort. The United Nations and others, like the European Union, have experiences in the past relating to state-building. On the other hand, there are other elements in the administration, notably in the Department of Defense, which are beginning to try to invent a blueprint and map out the capacities in order to have the United States undertake this task alone.

This is the group now in Kuwait headed by retired general Jay Garner?

That’s right. It is headed by Garner and staffed in leadership positions by a number of retired military and diplomatic actors. It’s [called] the Pentagon’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.

It’s planning for what?

It’s planning for the immediate aftermath, in terms of not only establishing security throughout the country, but also beginning to introduce the rule of law, civil administration, representative governance, and economic revival.

The main opponents of the war, before it started, included some of the principal U.S. allies in Europe, such as France and Germany. What is the view of major powers toward unilateral U.S. control?

In general, France, Germany, Russia, and other countries believe this reconstruction effort should be undertaken with a U.N. Security Council resolution, and with the broad involvement of other countries in Iraq’s recovery and rehabilitation.

But the United States has not come up with a definitive point of view yet?

That is fair to say. It is still quite fluid. The recent effort to come up with a limited arrangement relating to the continued U.N. administration of the Oil-for-Food program under Secretary General Kofi Annan, could serve as a confidence-building measure for a broader framework for U.S.-U.N. (and other Security Council members) participation in the aftermath of the war.

What would you suggest?

The reality is that the world community is weak in terms of state-building capacities. And that gives ammunition to those within the U.S. government who are intent on doing this alone. I think, though, that once they have rummaged through the U.S. government’s tool box, they will also find there is a limited capacity— and frankly it will be very expensive; it will cost scores of billions of dollars for many years. And for that reason, I think our government should re-engage the United Nations, trying to apportion the responsibilities within the international community clearly, and seriously strengthen the capacity of the international community to do this work in Iraq and elsewhere in the future.

How would Arab countries, Saudi Arabia, for instance, react to the United States doing it alone? Would they be willing to contribute to an American occupation?

That is highly unlikely. The problem is that one way to lose the war is to fail to win the peace. In fact, to win this war, in my view, we have to win the peace. So, in that sense, I think it is going to take not only the best efforts of the United States, but also the best efforts of our allies and others in the international community, including the United Nations, to come up with something that is more than just muddling through.

Have we had any comparable situation since World War Two?

Not particularly comparable. There are different models which have emerged. There is the U.N. administration model represented by East Timor. There is the like-minded coalition model, which would be Bosnia and the Office of the High Representative.

Is that staffed by NATO?

NATO provided the security, but the Contact Group [of nations that negotiated the end of the war in Bosnia] actually invented the Office of the High Representative, a new entity, that undertook reconstruction and rehabilitation in Bosnia. There was also the United States-led model— the military deployment in Haiti in 1994. The United States later handed over [control] to a United Nations mission.

None of these models produced an unqualified success. So, in that sense, there is a system that is still in search of the right mechanism to do this very hard work. That’s on display again and afresh in Iraq. We will have to come to terms with the problem that we simply need to invest more, have better capacities, and get serious about state-building activities.

Of course, U.S. forces would have to stay in Iraq for security reasons.

The military will be the provider of basic security for some period of time.

That would include basic aid responsibilities?

The U.S. military will be there first and will have to deal with those immediate issues. In fact, as the occupying power, it has a responsibility under the Fourth Geneva Convention to deal with those matters. So the U.S. military will be there first and alone as it tries to address those questions. It will, however, undoubtedly want to hand off to U.N. agencies fairly quickly.

Is that the same as U.N. administration?

Not necessarily. There could be a hybrid arrangement by the United States and its allies, with different responsibilities being given to different U.N. agencies, i.e., the World Food Program, which would be involved in food distribution, or UNICEF, which would be involved in health and nutritional work relating to children, the UNHCR [U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees] for returning refugees, UNDP [U.N. Development Bank] for development work, and the like.

The World Bank?

The World Bank would come in on the reconstruction question, if indeed it is to be given a role in this process. There are a number of American companies already beginning to preposition themselves for contracts with USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development] to undertake the reconstruction of major infrastructure in Iraq.

But the World Bank would have to be involved at some point on the economic side. Nobody really knows how to create prosperity. In that sense, all of the efforts and expertise that the world has gathered would be needed in this setting.

The administration is committed to seeing “democracy” functioning in Iraq. That requires, of course, some work in creating a viable political structure when there have been no democratic traditions in Iraq as far as I know.

Absolutely. This is one of those questions which may comprise a “mission impossible.” It just depends. The normal formula would be elections, or some variant like Afghanistan, a council of leaders. But I suspect we will be muddling along on this question for the foreseeable future.

When the president sent up his supplemental budget for $75 billion the other day, it did not really include money beyond the rest of this fiscal year, so there was very little apportioned for post-war reconstruction. The Council on Foreign Relations’ independent task force called for a minimum of $20 billion a year for reconstruction. Is that figure too low?

These are conservative figures. The $75 billion supplemental is clearly just a down payment. The $20 billion figure per year is also conservative. While Iraq’s oil may pay for some of this work over time, this is one of the reasons to find a group of allies, and other countries, with whom the burden could be shared.

Are the countries, like France and Russia, that opposed the war willing to agree to some formula that recognizes that the war is over and the United States won?

Taking a step back, I would suggest that the administration is probably right that sooner or later, the international community would have had to deal with disarming Iraq. And I think the United States has been able to state a plausible, if not compelling, basis for enforcing U.N. Security Council resolutions with the use of force.

But the real issue is a crisis of legitimacy that has emerged because the United States is so alone in this endeavor. That crisis of legitimacy is continuing to impact humanitarian planning and will impact even more profoundly reconstruction planning, in the sense it will be necessary to build confidence on all sides, the United States, its Security Council partners, and the United Nations more generally, if this is to be a successful enterprise. No one country, even one as powerful as the United States, can hope to do all that has to be done to create a new, prosperous, and democratic Iraq. And to see this solely as a U.S. initiative would raise the specter of a prolonged military occupation and inflame passions in the region. For these reasons, it is going to require marshalling a tremendous amount of resources in a multilateral fashion and sharing the burden.

If the other countries don’t recognize the legitimacy of the operation, will they contribute to post-war reconstruction?

There is a real danger that we will find ourselves far too alone in the aftermath of war, and that’s why it will be important to find ways to build confidence now on both sides in relation to concerted U.N. action, what U.N. colleagues like to call the unity of the Security Council. In that regard, I regard the Council’s unanimous approval of the limited arrangements for the Oil-for-Food program to be a positive development.


Top Stories on CFR

Southeast Asia

AUKUS represents the death knell for strategic ambiguity in Australian foreign policy.


Reflections on the shortcoming of U.S. policy in Afghanistan have brought lessons that can be used to rethink American policy toward Somalia.


Since the Myanmar military seized power in February, it has overseen economic collapse, mishandled the COVID-19 pandemic, murdered hundreds of people, and set the stage for the state to fail.