Former NATO Envoy: Bring NATO and the United Nations Into Iraq; the United States ’Would Still Run the Show’

December 08, 2003

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.

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Robert Hunter, the U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Clinton presidency, urges the Bush administration to consider making Iraqi security a NATO mission and shifting civilian authority to the United Nations. Such an arrangement, he says, “would tell the American people we were not alone” while allowing the United States to “still run the show” in Iraq.

“It is hard to understand why the United States wouldn’t risk going in this direction, when the payoff could be so enormous, in terms of … having other countries there, lowering the visibility of American forces, and, hence, lowering their chances of being killed,” he says.

Hunter is a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit policy advisory institution. He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on December 8, 2003.

Other Interviews

In September, you wrote an op-ed article for The New York Times about Iraq that was headlined, “Let NATO Do It.” At the recent meetings in Brussels of the foreign and defense ministers of North Atlantic Treaty Organization, there was discussion about getting NATO involved in Iraq. Do you think this might happen?

A number of NATO countries are already there in bits and pieces within the British or American zones, and there is also a full-fledged Polish zone. What I had in mind in September, and what I still have in mind, is for NATO as an institution to take over the lead from the United States in terms of providing security. The United States would still be the dominant player but it would be under a NATO umbrella, with NATO forces from most of the countries, plus a lot of non-NATO nations. I still believe that’s feasible and the way to go.

It’s feasible of course, but right now it doesn’t seem quite possible. Would the United States have to make concessions in terms of U.N. Security Council mandates, or something like that?

Clearly, for NATO to go in, it would have to have an external mandate. It can operate from a mandate from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, but that organization has not been used for this. Or it could get one from the U.N. Security Council. That’s how NATO went into Bosnia in 1995. The problem is: does the United States have to be 100 percent in control in Iraq, or are we prepared to share decisions with others, as well as the responsibility we want others to share with us? [Involving NATO] would be a wise decision for the United States. But the administration so far has not been prepared to countenance that.

What about the problems the United States has had with France over Iraq? Are they now ameliorated, as some press accounts suggest?

France is very much involved with us in Afghanistan. The French have about 150 special forces troops in Afghanistan fighting with the Americans, not as part of the NATO peacekeeping operation, but as part of the American fighting units that are going out after al Qaeda and the Taliban. Secondly, when NATO created its new peacekeeping force on October 15, France became the leading contributor of forces. No problem there. What the French are saying is that there needs to be recognition of a broader mandate in Iraq. There needs to be some sharing of authority by the United States and there needs to be Iraqis coming into positions of control or at least major activity, sooner rather than later. It comes down to whether the United States is prepared to risk sharing some authority, sharing some control, in order to get an extraordinary amount of physical and other kinds of support from other nations, including the NATO structure.

How much control would the United States have to give up? Would [Coalition Provisional Authority head] L. Paul [Jerry] Bremer III be replaced by a U.N. director?

Based on conversations I have had with a number of people, Jerry Bremer would have to be replaced by a U.N. administrator whose name would be Jerry Bremer. Even though he would receive a formal mandate from the United Nations, he would still be in charge. In fact, and I think people with NATO experience understand [this] fully, if the United States would accept this U.N. resolution and if NATO were officially put in charge, the unacknowledged well-known secret is that the United States would still run the show. And there would be joint activity between the United States and the European Union on reconstruction.

You seem to be advocating what happened during the Korean War when, with the Russians boycotting the Security Council, the council set up a military force and the United States ran the force with General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander.

That’s not a bad parallel. In fact, this time, so long as you have a United Nations resolution that acknowledges Iraqi sovereignty and talks about integrating the political process of change in Iraq, you wouldn’t have Russia sitting out. You could get everybody involved. It is hard to understand why the United States wouldn’t risk going in this direction, when the payoff could be so enormous in terms of not only having other countries there, lowering the visibility of American forces, and, hence, lowering their chances of being killed, but also blunting the symbolic role of Britain, which every Iraqi knows used to be the colonial power and is deeply resented for that. It would enable us, as in Kosovo and Bosnia, to get a lot of non-European people in uniform under NATO command. It would tell the American people we were not alone. It would help free up money. Our allies, the French and Germans in particular, have been telling us this for months. They tell all of us outside the government, and I presume they are telling people in the government the same.

Under your plan, Bremer would be the U.N. administrator. How would NATO fit into this?

Let the Europeans write any United Nations resolution they want. We just need a couple of things in it: Bremer is the U.N. guy, NATO is in charge, and the United States is the big enchilada. I believe that would be accepted in a heartbeat.

What’s the thinking within the Bush administration, insofar as you can tell?

Well, reading The New York Times, it seems that there is this split between [the] State and Defense [departments]. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, to see the president moving in this direction. Everything he says when he goes to NATO, the things that Secretary of State Colin Powell has said— and he is not a person who gets way out on a limb— seem to indicate, and I am really guessing now, that the president would be inclined to have a greater NATO role but isn’t yet willing to risk a loss of control.

There are a couple of other elements one has to consider. To what extent is the administration worried that there would be a perception that the United States can’t succeed on its own? That would vitiate the idea that unilateralism is better than multilateralism. I hate that term. I prefer the one I invented for Governor Bill Clinton back in 1992— “Do things together when you can, and do them alone when you must.”

There may also be some people worried that [a NATO mission in Iraq] would blunt the possibility of pre-emption elsewhere, including [against] Iran. One of the things the Europeans, particularly the French and the Germans, are saying to us is: “We want to have some kind of confidence that if we help out on Iraq, the United States is not then going to turn willy-nilly and use military force against Iran.” We need to sort that out along the lines of the most recent U.S.-European agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency position on how to address Iran’s secret nuclear program. There is still a debate within the administration over the view that we want to have the opportunity, with no constraints, to do something similar to [invading Iraq] again, somewhere else; [on the other side,] the Europeans saying, “Wait a second, if we’re going to participate, we want to have a chance this time to be in on the takeoff and not just the crash landing.”

You’re a veteran of the political wars in Washington. You were an adviser to Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 campaign.

I was also in the Johnson White House and four years in the Carter White House.

How is this playing out politically in the United States? Is Bush waiting for the right moment to make a dramatic move? He is being belted by almost every Democratic candidate for not having the United Nations more involved.

This is beyond my Ouija board. I would have thought, looking at what we see in the polls, that the average American overwhelmingly would like to see more involvement by the United Nations and more involvement by NATO and certainly more involvement by the Europeans and others. Given the enormity of what we face in Iraq, the United States, as various people have said, cannot fail. The allies cannot let us fail. We are collectively engaged in sorting out Iraq, and sorting out the Middle East for the next generation. We have no choice. I would hope this could go beyond politics. If Mr. Bush wants to change his mind and say this is the way to go, I would hope people in the Democratic Party would say, “We will join with you, Mr. President” and would forebear, to the point that human nature will let us, from saying, “We told you so.”

American foreign policy, as you know, only works when the president can sell the Congress and the American people on his policy. In effect, American foreign policy only works when it is bipartisan. When it doesn’t, it fails, and it tends to lead to more Americans getting killed.