Rachel Bronson, a senior fellow and director of Middle East and Gulf Studies, at the Council on Foreign Relations, participated in a Council-sponsored conference call on August 19, 2003, to brief editorial-page editors at U.S. newspapers on the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. Following is an edited transcript of the briefing.
What are the consequences of the bombing of the U.N. office in Baghdad?
It’s a shock for the United Nations and Secretary-General Kofi Annan. U.N. people are probably asking, “Why us?” This echoes how the Iraqi people have probably been feeling through this period of sabotage: “Why me? Why now?”
But in the long term, the bombing may have some bizarrely positive affects—and I hate to use the word positive in such tragic circumstances. But it has been very easy for the Arab world and people in the street to view the saboteurs and those destroying Iraq’s infrastructure as freedom fighters resisting a neo-colonial power—the United States. This attack on the United Nations is going to remove that kind of language and view from the public discourse. It will no longer be easy to say, “Well, the United States had this coming,” because now it’s the United Nations under attack—not a colonial power, but an organization that is trying to help the Iraqi people.
In the Arab world, the attack may begin turning the rhetoric and dialogue toward the topic of terrorism. When saboteurs go after unarmed international figures who are trying to ease the suffering of the Iraqi people, that, by definition, becomes terrorism. And while President Bush’s statements regarding Iraq and terrorism never carried much weight in the Arab world, I think we may start seeing things turn, because this clearly was an act of terror.
Will this attack change opinions in the Bush administration about working more closely with the United Nations?
No. For the Bush administration and the United Nations, the main issue is control of political and economic decisions in Iraq. This attack won’t affect whether administration officials think the French should have a greater say in what’s going on. What it could do is affect the actions of countries that have withheld support in part because they aren’t sure if the U.S. occupation is a form of neo-colonialism. The attack may give them an opening; some of the Arab states, for example, may find it easier to help the United States because now they would be working against those who are attacking the United Nations. So, if Washington receives additional help, it won’t be because of a change of thinking in the Bush administration but because of a change of thinking in other countries.
We’ve now seen bomb attacks on the embassy of Jordan, a country with pro-western leanings, and the United Nations. Are other specific targets highly vulnerable?
If you look at this from the terrorists’ viewpoint, they are looking for high-profile and weak areas—they are looking for the weakest link. Basically, what this attack signals is that nobody is safe in Iraq. These guys are going after normal Iraqis, Iraqi infrastructure, Arabs, the United Nations, Britain, United States—everybody is vulnerable.
What’s the first step the United States and the United Nations must take to secure the situation?
The first step has been taken. President Bush issued a strong statement after the attack in which he put the United States and the United Nations in the same position and working toward the same goal. The president is correctly trying to portray the Baghdad bombing as an attack against all of us. His previous attempts to do this have been somewhat clumsy, but at this particular moment, he delivered a good speech, and I think it will resonate. The United Nations is going to have to figure out what its role will be moving forward. I think the United Nations will remain very involved.
Will the bombing in Iraq give the Saudi government, which has started to move against homegrown extremists, a chance to say some things about terrorism that it would not have said a year or so ago?
It’s an easy opportunity for them to talk about terrorism because this, by all definitions, fits into terrorism. They’ll be able to talk about it in a way that they’ve been very uncomfortable about before. They didn’t see Iraq as a key terrorist state—as Bush did in the lead-up to the war—and so they were in a difficult position in that they didn’t agree with a primary rationale for the war. I will be listening closely to statements coming out of the Arab world to see what they make of this opportunity.
The trick with Saudi Arabia is always to figure out whether any development represents two steps forward and one step back, or two steps back and one step forward. But there has already been important progress, especially since the May 12 bomb attacks in Saudi Arabia. The attack was defined as an attack against all Saudi citizens. Since then, officials have conceded that there are al Qaeda cells in the country and have begun rounding up suspected extremists and cracking down on religious preachers, many of whom have lost their jobs, been jailed, or are being retrained
There was some anger, and rightfully so, in the United States caused by the fact that it took the Saudis until May of this year to respond to the terror threat. You would have thought they would have responded right after September 11, but it wasn’t until they were hit at home that they responded in the massive way they have. It’s important to think about this in the Saudi context. They were able to define the May bombing as an attack against their country and, in response, do many of the things the crown prince probably wanted to do after September 11 but felt he couldn’t because it would look like he was bowing to the Americans. I think the crown prince is in a very difficult position, in which he has to fight off his brothers, who aren’t very supportive of a lot of the reforms he’s trying to put through. But he’s trying to seize opportunities.
There have been reports that, as a result of the Saudi crackdown on terror-related activities, some of the jihadists streaming into Iraq may be coming directly from Saudi Arabia. Do you have any sense of that?
I don’t have any sense of whether that’s true or not, but I would imagine it to be quite possible. The influx of foreign fighters poses a real risk in Iraq, and illustrates why law and order is so essential. If chaos seems to reign, the upheaval will attract all of those from across the globe who want to take a shot at the Americans. There is also the risk—and this is, I think, the extreme outcome—of creating Afghanistan writ large in one of the Arab world’s most important countries. That’s what the saboteurs are trying to do, and that’s why others extremists are drifting in.
What new steps can the United States take to promote law and order in Iraq? Do we need more troops there? Do we need more help from other countries?
We need more troops there. The question is, do we supply the troops or do we get others to supply them? That has been the question throughout, and it’s why many of us thought that we really did want to work a little harder at getting international support going into the war because it would help us coming out of the war. [Secretary of Defense Donald]. Rumsfeld, [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz, and others scoffed at estimates that 250,000 or 500,000 troops would be needed to secure the peace; they said that’s more than it’s going to take to fight the war. As we know, the revolution in military affairs has greatly reduced the number of soldiers needed to fight a war—but there hasn’t been a revolution in policing. The number of officers needed to police the beat here in the United States hasn’t changed for years.
If you look at the troop levels we had in Kosovo, if you look at the numbers we had in Bosnia and elsewhere, they suggest that 250,000 to 500,000 troops are necessary in Iraq. When [then-Army Chief of Staff Eric] Shinseki testified in Congress that several hundred thousand troops were needed to police the peace, he wasn’t pulling those figures from out of nowhere. These estimates were well-known; they were based on the work that the U.S. Central Command did during the Clinton administration when it thought through what was needed to go after Saddam and get rid of him. That force strength is unnecessary only if the postwar transition is seamless and all institutions stay in place, which was clearly the scenario the Bush administration was betting on. That wasn’t totally unreasonable, but it doesn’t seem the administration had a good alternative if that scenario didn’t match conditions on the ground.
Other countries, compared with the United States, are better at policing. The French, British, Spanish, Argentines, and Canadians—they are all good at it. These countries have been involved in policing missions, like the British in Northern Ireland, and their forces are set up to perform those kinds of missions. The U.S. armed forces are still set up to fight the Cold War, in which policing wasn’t really a big issue. So the more the United States can get from those who have assets to offer, the better.
If the United States can’t get outside help, it will need people, and people who have been trained for this kind of work. Look at Germany after World War II. The United States took 30,000 of the approximately 100,000 troops it had in postwar Germany and made them responsible for policing. Over time, they were given equipment, horses, riot control gear, and eventually were trained to be constabulary forces. When we’ve done this right, we’ve committed to large numbers of troops that are basically police. This administration is reluctant to do that. As a result, you end up in a situation where there is chaos, because we’re not totally committed to policing. I believe more forces are needed, and forces that are trained differently. Whether they are U.S. forces alone or U.S. forces working alongside troops from other countries, they are needed.