1. Bush Administration Bids for International Legitimacy

The generally grim appraisal of a sharply deteriorating security situation in Iraq is not shared by the heads of the Bush administration in Washington or US civilian and military leaders on the spot. Allegations that Washington’s strategic decision-making and diplomatic policies on Iraqi war management and its recovery are fatally disjointed are firmly rejected. Exhibiting unexpected self-confidence and cool heads, the White House on Wednesday, September 3, launched two fresh initiatives on both these critical fronts.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld both took to the air on mutually complementary missions.

Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage flew to New York to go round the permanent members of the UN Security Council in search of a mandate to expand and also fund the UN role in Iraq’s mighty reconstruction program. They also began shopping for a multinational force to shore up the 150,000 US troops.

Rumsfeld was dispatched by the president to Baghdad, the Persian Gulf and Kabul. His mission in Iraq is to see how far the guerrilla war plaguing the country is undercutting American control and stability in the country and also to calculate in what directions events are heading.

In Kabul, he will need to find out how the Taliban was able to regroup so much strength in Pakistan without any warning from Islamabad, how its fighting forces could seize such large tracts of territory in western Afghanistan and how the major battles against Afghan government and US forces escalating in the last two weeks developed. Units of the deposed Taliban regime will be found to have thrust to within 100 miles north and east of Kabul.

No one in Washington entertains the illusion that longwinded Security Council debates will generate an instant supply of troops and funds to bolster US efforts in Iraq.

At UN headquarters, on Thursday, September 4, the secretary of state produced the first tortuous locution of his mission:

“The United States will be in command of a unified US-UN command and there will be an element in the resolution that calls upon the US as head of the military coalition to report on a regular basis to the United Nations.”

This kicked off discussions that will drag on for months – possibly up to the spring of 2004 – whose outcome is far from clear. There is no knowing how many Council members will back an agreed draft or how many are willing or capable of deploying enough high profile combat forces for Iraq.

Of the five permanent members, the only two with armies large enough to detach substantial strength are Russia and China. French military chiefs would welcome an invitation to deploy a small force in Baghdad for purposes of intelligence and a boost for French prestige. This eagerness is not shared by the Elysee Palace. Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder were quick on Thursday, September 4, to reject the Powell plan.

The Russian defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, sounded a lot more promising. He said on Thursday that Russia might consider providing peacekeepers for Iraq under a UN aegis providing the wording of the resolution was right. Moscow will most certainly pose stiff conditions for its troops, such as the allocation of a well-defined region as its responsibility and a role at least equal to that of the British in the southern region of Iraq. Ivanov has already stressed that his men would be under UN not a US aegis. US diplomats are toying with a formula that would grant direct command of the Russian force to the Russian army’s representative on a joint US-UN command – if and when such a body is eventually set up.

China would be delighted to be offered a military foothold in the Middle East, but would want to take up a presence around Persian Gulf shores rather than the Iraqi interior. Therefore, Beijing may insist on any contribution to the multinational force taking the form of naval units or air patrols – not exactly the sort of assistance the Americans seek for combating guerrilla fighters. Furthermore, the Chinese would not accept American or other foreign command over their forces.

A potential Russian and Chinese input for a force in Iraq would be further complicated by their deep involvement in Tehran’s prohibited nuclear program. The Bush administration hopes before the end of the month to lift the Iranian nuclear weapons issue out of the hands of the International Atomic Energy Agency board in Vienna and place it before the Security Council which is empowered to impose sanctions on nuclear miscreants. The Iraq and Iran debates running in parallel in the Security Council could result in a serious tangling of wires.

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