Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 September 2003
Issue No. 656
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Ways out

With its Iraq policy in tatters Washington is seeking an exit, reports Salah Hemeid

Since ousting Saddam Hussein the Bush administration has ricocheted from one policy to another, changed course, said one thing and done another. Having mocked the UN it now seeks the world organisation's stamp and tells its European allies -- the "old" Europe that Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld scorned -- that it wants their troops and money.

In his Sunday night speech President George W Bush made it clear that US policy is now to "enlist the support of other nations" in Iraq. Soon Secretary of State Colin Powell was preaching the new policy and urging the UN to help, meeting in Geneva to discuss with foreign ministers the new draft resolution Washington wants the Security Council to pass.

The proposed resolution invites the US- appointed Iraqi Governing Council to cooperate with the UN and US officials in Baghdad to produce "a timetable and programme for the drafting of a new constitution for Iraq and for the holding of democratic elections". The resolution would help shift the peace-keeping burden from Washington towards a multinational force under a unified UN command with an American commander.

Although the one-day meeting of foreign ministers called by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was less acrimonious than some expected the five nations failed to break the deadlock over Iraq. Germany and, in particular, France, have criticised the US draft. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said that any new UN resolution must contain a timetable for putting a provisional Iraqi government in place, followed by a draft constitution by the end of the year and elections next spring. De Villepin -- one of the most vehement opponents of the US invasion of Iraq -- also blasted US demands for more troops from other countries to help restore peace, saying that simply sending in more soldiers will not satisfy the Iraqis' thirst for sovereignty.

In Baghdad Powell listened to similar demands, from members of the Iraqi Governing Council, that power be transferred to Iraqis as soon as possible.

Foreign Minister Houchiar Zibari was explicit in putting the case before Powell. "We hope by mid-2004, or before the end of the year, we will be able to have a sovereign, elected, legitimate government in place," Zibari said in a statement after meeting with Powell.

Yet Powell remained opposed to speeding-up the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty to accommodate a complete hand-over of power from by spring of 2004. "The worst thing a person could do is set [the new Iraqi government] up for failure," Powell said, adding that he considered the French timetable too optimistic given the security and economic situation in Iraq.

Everybody would like to accelerate this," Powell said in Baghdad. "Everyone wants this to go faster. We don't want to stay here a day longer than we have to. It's expensive. Our young soldiers would like to get home to their families." But at the same time, he insisted, "we can't just say 'you are a government, fine, go, you have full authority'."

Attempts to "internationalise" the Iraqi dilemma nonetheless represent a foreign- policy victory for Powell, who advocated UN participation from the start of the crisis. Yet any fine-tuning of Washington's strategy towards a larger UN role is likely to meet continued opposition from the most strident neo-conservatives within the Bush administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Increasingly blamed for the mess their go-it-alone strategy has caused, they remain determined to ensure that it is the Pentagon that dictates the direction of policy in Iraq. They argue that "Iraqification", or speeding up the political transition, is premature.

Cheney came out guns blazing to defend his team's Iraq policy, rejecting all criticism of US actions in Iraq. There is no reason, he said, to "think that the strategy is flawed or needs to be changed". And in a television interview on Sunday Cheney argued that there should be no further changes in Iraq policy whatever bipartisan and international demands are made for a different approach. He declared "major success, major progress" in Iraq and claimed that most of the country is "stable and quiet" and that Americans are viewed as "liberators".

Whatever splits exist within the Bush administration over Iraq, the emerging strategy seems to be to attempt to persuade the UN to act as fig leaf covering America's exit. Yet with Iraq in chaos, its security and political problems growing daily more acute, a collective multinational approach is needed more than ever.

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