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The UN as Stopgap

Eric Chauvistre | 10.08.2005 13:53 | Anti-militarism | World

"First of all, the question must be raised whether Iraq is actually a military problem that could be solved with more troops. This is assumed by Bush and others.."


By Eric Chauvistre

[This article published in: Blatter fur deutsche und internationale Politik, 7/5/2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

For the president, there was never any question. The attack on Iraq was part of his global war against terror. George W. Bush imputed connections to the al Qaida terror network to the regime in Baghdad. He could never prove these connections. The US government ignored all warnings about the consequences of a war. It also presented itself as the responsible executor of resolutions of the UN Security Council. In his speech before the UN General Assembly, Bush demanded the United Nations’ blind obedience. The world organization had to decide whether to fulfill the purpose of its founding or become “irrelevant.” (1)

A year after this arrogant appeal, Iraq actually seems to have become an operation field for terrorists. This is what Bush declared before the invasion. The UN long irrelevant in the eyes of the US government is suddenly rediscovered as a relief organ to remove the chaos caused by the US invasion in Iraq.

As a result, the debates of the last weeks circle around the question whether and how the United Nations should play a stronger role in Iraq. The Iraqis cannot be left to suffer more under the chaos, it is said. Therefore more states and the UN itself must be engaged in Iraq. Skeptics hastened the reproach that seeing the US bleed in Iraq in the literal sense was more important to them than creating a somewhat more tolerable future for the country as soon as possible. Should more troops from more European states be now sent to Iraq? Must the motto be: as much UN in Iraq as possible?

It should be said right at the start: there is no simple answer. Since the beginning of September 2004, the question is no longer only theoretical. In a television address, Bush declared the other members of the United Nations had “the possibility and the responsibility” to contribute to ending the chaos in Iraq. There was no plea, no canvassing for help or the least admission of a misjudgment by the president who five months before was celebrated as a victorious warlord in a pilot’s outfit on an aircraft carrier.

No one expected from Bush any formal admission. Covering up his own political failure with the reproach that other governments did not meet their obligations in Iraq is not only bad style. This accusation bound with the appeal that old differences not stand in the way of solving burning problems shows that Bush and his advisors have no understanding of the self-dynamic of organized violence. The war begun by them is not simply over but has only entered a new phase.

The US government presumably including moderates like Colin Powell thinks about war in structures that may have been appropriate in the 19th century when state armies met on a battleground. The conflicts of the last decades have nothing to do with this. The media spectacle of March and April when a tank of the US marines toppled a statute facing the journalists’ hotel in Baghdad while George W. Bush declared himself the victor was anything but characteristic for the new wars.

No serious commentator ever doubted that the US could shatter the military structures of the Iraqi regime in a short time with its clear military superiority. The only uncertainty was whether this would take two weeks or two months. As everybody knows, US troops rolled into Baghdad after three weeks. The kind of war where one state power fights another is a very great exception today. The current violence in Iraq is the normal state in many parts of the earth and should not be glorified with the term “guerilla war.” Destroying the icons of a system is not enough if the structures of violence remain. The Iraqi state is smashed but the violence is only privatized, commercialized and decentralized.

A state of chaos exists through non-governmental violence exposing the population to the arbitrariness of warlords and criminals and creating a base for regional or even global private purveyors of violence. The US attack on Iraq has created what they wanted to end in Afghanistan with military means. Iraq seems to have reached this point with the strikes on the UN building in Baghdad and on the mosque in Nadschaf. Since then it is idle to speculate on motives for individual attacks. It is a characteristic of the new wars that they develop a self-dynamic that can hardly be stopped.

All this was known. Since then, the abstract thesis that wars often first create the problems they pretend to remove is confirmed in Iraq. A know-it-all attitude persisted and Bush cast all warnings to the wind. However acting as though there could be a simple way out of the created catastrophe would be irresponsible. Not looking at the motives of the US government would be shortsighted since these affected the estimation of the dangers.


First of all, political legitimating seems vital to the US government. If the US occupiers had a clear UN mandate, this would help them – according to the nebulous hope in Washington – in presenting themselves as liberators and protectors rather than as occupiers. The planners in the White House and in the Pentagon are hardened enough to know this alone will hardly change anything in Iraq. But this legitimating could be important for domestic political reasons. Since telling the US population and members of Congress that the United States is being defended in Iraq is becoming more difficult, a clear UN mandate could help give the intervention the claim of fighting for all humanity. The need for the support of a large part of the world is more striking among inveterate unilateralists in the US than in Germany as a rule.

Secondly, the US government may simply seek relief from the burden for its global military machine. If no peace can be made with 130,000 American and another 23,000 soldiers from other countries, then a few others must be added. The total number of available soldiers is limited even for the superpower. The longer the occupation lasts, the greater the need for fresh units flown in from the US. When the Pentagon reaches its limits, this does not mean the United States will be without reinforcements sometime or other in Iraq. It only means that it approaches that critical point when waging intervention wars elsewhere becomes impossible.

Finally, the long-term planning of the Pentagon since the 1990s has assumed that the US must be able to wage two large wars – on the scale of the Iraq invasion – at the same time. In addition, adequate forces for smaller theaters of war like Afghanistan should be available. Consequently every troop dispatch of other states increases the US capacity to continue its endless war against terror.


The long-term consequences of the intervention that are now increasingly foreseeable are as immense as the war skeptics predicted before the invasion. The Bush administration planned the Iraq war for a long time despite all warnings. With their British and other allies from the coalition of the war willing, the Bush administration is alone responsible for the consequences. Sending more foreign troops who will be mainly occupied in defending themselves may even worsen the situation. To force a supposed solution through more military would arouse a few beautiful illusions here and there. Thus more troops, whether American or multinational, is not the solution.

While chaos and violence in Iraq may encourage ad-hoc actions, long-term planning is even more vital. Helping the population in Iraq is obviously central. However people in Europe should have learned from the experience of past years in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere that military actionism ultimately helps no one. Enough simple and fast solutions in the region have already been offered.

This means the US military should not be relieved so it can be deployed in other theaters of war. Bush’s attempt to successfully wage his supposed war against Iraq cannot be the criterion for responsible conduct – either for a particular government or for the UN Security Council. First of all, the question must be raised whether Iraq is actually a military problem that can be solved with more troops. Bush and others make this assumption. An analysis of what military means can accomplish and what they cannot accomplish seems more necessary than ever. The debate seems marked very much by the naïve idea that UN coats-of-arms on uniforms and administrative buildings could bring about wonders in a catastrophic situation. The recent murder of the UN special commissioner Sergio de Mello in the attack on the UN special headquarters in Baghdad proved the opposite.


In Iraq the very great danger is not – as Bush and Powell hoped – that the legitimating of the United Nations would rub off on the US but conversely the transfer of the occupier image from the United States to the UN. Then the world organization whose image in Iraq was already shattered by the sanction regime will completely lose its role as neutral mediator. Bush’s prognosis of the irrelevant United Nations will prove true at the end. Carrying out humanitarian services and organizing the democratization- and state-building process through the UN – in Iraq and other parts of the world marked by war and violence – will be more difficult.

Eric Chauvistre
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Display the following 2 comments

  1. The answer — George
  2. Focus Still Interesting — Bush/PNAC Going Down