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The Bush Administration's biggest Iraq challenge lies in the UN

By Ron Huisken - posted Friday, 31 October 2003

On 5 August last year, Colin Powell spent several hours in the White House with President Bush and Condolezza Rice. In what was reportedly the first extended conversation Powell had with the President on the question of Iraq, he stressed that direct action against Iraq would monopolise US political and military energies for an extended period. Powell also pointed to the huge imponderables associated with "running" Iraq after Saddam had been ousted, drawing on a major (and remarkably prescient) State Department study begun in April 2002.

There can be little joy in being right, however. Not when much of the responsibility for fixing the problems starts heading in your direction. And when the stakes are so huge: the lives of Iraqis and others trying to live and work in that country; possibly the future of the Bush administration; and to an important extent the parameters of US global leadership in the future.

Iraq is a tactical nightmare for the 130,000 US troops based there. The resistance has been more intense, enduring, sophisticated and adaptable than even pessimistic projections suggested was likely. The blizzard of bombings and rocket attacks last Sunday and Monday underscored again that the initiative still seems to rest with the opposition. And they confirm that the targets are not just Americans but anyone who collaborates with the US, including international organisations (the UN earlier, now the Red Cross) and Iraqis who become policemen or soldiers.


The US military force in Iraq was always too small to be an imposing presence in a country as large as California and with a population of 23 million. It was designed not just to win the war but to send the deeper political signal that the US could perform missions of this kind with an extraordinary economy of force. But the US Army and Marine Corps lack the numbers to sustain even the present force in Iraq. Current plans call for a reduction to 100,000 by July/August next year and to 50,000 by mid 2005. Troops from other nations and newly-trained Iraqis are to fill the gap.

The outlook for such burden-sharing is not bright, at least not yet. America's bigger problem is still at the level of global politics rather than on the ground in Iraq. The train wreck in the Security Council last March had less to do with Saddam than with America's power and the Bush administration's uncharacteristically stark pronouncements on how and to what ends that power would be used.

The “revolt” led by France, Russia, China, and Germany in the lead-up to the war is still with us. The postwar experience in Iraq has been almost the antithesis of that projected by those in Washington who demanded regime change. The administration has been deeply reluctant to step away from the defining premise of its doctrine, that the US could perform missions like Iraq unilaterally if necessary. It hung on until late August before signalling that it was prepared to qualify its control in Iraq if that would facilitate larger military and financial contributions to Iraq's stabilisation and re-construction.

The Security Council resolution that eventually emerged (on 16 October) was adopted unanimously. That was important because it showed that all countries recognised that it was necessary to succeed in Iraq. But it was inconclusive on the broader political battle of wills. France and others promptly declared that the resolution did not go far enough in accelerating the transition to Iraqi self-rule (which was another way of saying that the US was still too reluctant to share its authority).

The political rift was visible again at the donors conference in Madrid on 23-24 October. The World Bank estimates that Iraq needs US$55 billion over the next four years. The US committed US$20 billion and the rest of the world just US$13 billion. Moreover, much of the latter figure came from the World Bank and the IMF. Also notable was that the leaders of the “revolt” kept a pretty tight hold on their purse strings.

Despite these disappointments, there can be no doubt that there is movement, that the international community is muddling its way toward unity on Iraq, and in the background, toward a new understanding on global governance. The unsung heroes in this process are probably the US voters. Many people forget that they were quite determinedly multilateralist in the lead-up to the war. They demanded that the administration try a lot harder to get UN endorsement and/or a much larger coalition. In recent months they have been signalling the administration that they signed on to the war on terror, not to any grand strategy for US dominance. And the administration is listening.

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This article was first published in the The Australian Financial Review on 29 October 2003.

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About the Author

Dr Ron Huisken is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

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