Why UN and US now need each other

Like a longtime married couple that has undergone a trial separation, the US and the UN are finding they cannot do without each other.

The US, bedeviled by fractious political elements in Iraq, wants the UN to help bail it out of messy plans to turn over the government to Iraqis by July 1. The UN, sidelined since the Iraq war began, eagerly wants a piece of the postwar action if it can get it without being made the scapegoat for failure.

For the US, a meaningful handover of political power in Iraq this year is critical. It's the key to stability and economic progress in Iraq and the consequent unfolding of the Bush administration's vision for democracy and prosperity in the Arab world. But whether this transition can go smoothly, and on time, has been roiled by debate over a US plan to hold caucuses that would appoint lawmakers to an assembly and provisional government that would rule until elections in 2005. A leading Shiite Muslim leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, has been insisting on direct elections for a transitional legislature.

A beginning of the end of the postwar political muddle in Iraq is critical for President Bush's reelection prospects. Shifting fortunes in the Democratic opposition to Mr. Bush make the need for stability in Iraq by election day even more important for him.

Although we are still in the early stages of the Democrats' race for the nomination, the initial eclipse of Howard Dean in Iowa and the rise of Sen. John Kerry in the polls suggest the possibility of stiffer competition for Bush. The angry, left-wing rhetoric of Dr. Dean made him God's gift to the Republicans. Should Senator Kerry end up as the Democrats' candidate, he'd be a more formidable opponent. A decorated Vietnam war veteran, he supported the Iraq war but has been bludgeoning the Bush administration for its handling of the postwar reconstruction effort.

If some kind of UN imprimatur for the political transition in Iraq is vital for the US, it is an opportunity the UN can hardly pass up. Dismissed as irrelevant since the beginning of the war, the UN may have this last chance to reestablish itself as a force in international diplomacy in a changing world.

This must clearly be foremost in the mind of UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan as he ponders UN involvement in the problem. Iraq has undermined the UN's political stature. It has inflicted great emotional trauma with the Aug. 19 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, now evacuated .

But Mr. Annan is no stranger to the perils as well as the successes of UN peacemaking and peacekeeping. I worked closely with him when I served a one-year term as UN assistant secretary-general in 1995. He was at that time in charge of worldwide peacekeeping operations, but especially involved in murderous Bosnia.

The UN has a lot of experience in difficult political negotiations. A logical candidate for the Iraq task would be Lakhdar Brahimi, a Muslim and a former Algerian diplomat, who successfully brought together disparate political elements in Afghanistan and has undertaken delicate peacemaking missions for the UN in other countries.

What Annan will be weighing is the likelihood of UN success in Iraq, what its role might be, and how dangerous it would be for UN personnel. After the peacemaking might come a UN peacekeeping role, depending on the volatility of the situation in Iraq, and the pressures for an American military withdrawal. The UN's Nobel Peace Prize-winning, blue-helmeted peacekeepers have been effective in various international situations, largely after major conflict has ended and the former combatants have accepted an impartial referee. But they're lightly armed soldiers, ineffective in the midst of ongoing warfare which, as we saw in Bosnia, requires the use of a force like NATO that can field artillery, heavy armor, and air power.

Might NATO, despite former political differences, be ready to follow with military deployment in Iraq behind any UN political and humanitarian role? The new NATO secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of the Netherlands, doesn't rule it out.

In the face of these imponderables, an apparently new US desire for international cooperation, and a pressing UN need for greater relevance, are nudging the US and UN together.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as UN assistant secretary-general and director of communications in 1995.

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