The continuous challenge to the security of Iraq, highlighted most recently by the fall of Ramadi to ISIS, calls for a fundamental rethinking of policy in the region. A new approach has to reflect the complex interplay of internal and external factors. Western policymakers lament the failure of state-building and the inability of the Iraqi government to develop a post-regime change consensus capable of uniting the country’s different communities. But this cannot be understood in isolation from wider regional factors, such as the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the civil war in neighboring Syria and the rise of nonstate actors.
Moreover, no account of what has gone wrong would be complete without acknowledging the failure of the international community to provide strong and united leadership in the search for peace in Iraq. Divergent great power interests and the deterioration in relations between Russia and the United States in particular have hindered the development of a common strategy. The withdrawal of American troops in 2011 came on the back of a failed experiment in nation-building and the installation of a democracy in an authoritarian Arab country, something several countries in the region opposed.
It is to be hoped that the next U.S. president will feel confident enough to pursue a renewed policy of engagement with Iraq. But what is really needed is for the United Nations to take a more active role in galvanizing the resources and influence of all its leading members behind a coherent peace plan capable of rallying regional and local forces in support. The maintenance of international peace and security is the U.N.’s primary responsibility set out in the very first article of its own Charter. Throughout its 70-year existence, there has hardly been a more obvious need for the organization to act on its core mandate.
Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein, the U.N.’s role in Iraq has been an ancillary one at best. The Bush administration was keen to use the organization’s legitimacy while restricting its responsibilities to institution-building, reconstruction and development. The U.N. secretary-general has appointed a number of special representatives for Iraq, who have proven effective and popular, including Nikolay Mladenov, who was a forceful advocate of Iraqi political unity. His recent replacement, Jan Kubis, is continuing that effort, in a challenging environment with limited resources.
The U.N. has done a lot of good work in Iraq, but has never been given the strategic peace-building role envisaged in the U.N. Charter. The appointment of a new secretary-general next year should be seen as an opportunity for the U.N. to come off the sidelines and play a more central part in search for a political solution to the crisis in Iraq and the region as a whole. The key objective must be to build a consensus within the Security Council, and especially between its five permanent members, over the way forward.
It undoubtedly helps that the next secretary-general is expected to come from Eastern Europe under the U.N. rule that rotates the post between regional groups. The fact that the two most recent special representatives for Iraq have come from that region is perhaps no coincidence. Politicians and diplomats from Eastern Europe are often particularly effective in the Middle East. They are geographically close enough to understand its importance to global security, are well-integrated into the most important international institutions, yet carry none of the imperial baggage of their counterparts from Western Europe. They are seen as honest brokers, without their own agendas.
The current front-runner is former Bulgarian Foreign Minister Irina Bokova. As director of UNESCO, she has visited Iraq twice in the last six months and prioritized efforts to combat the destruction of the country’s cultural heritage by ISIS. In her role at UNESCO – and in close cooperation with the U.S. – she is leading the international fight against terror financing through the trafficking of cultural artifacts from Iraq and Syria. She enjoys a strong reputation within the U.N. and in the U.S.
The other serious contenders come from outside Eastern Europe. Michelle Bachelet, the current president of Chile, is a popular choice and has a strong government background, but no experience of Middle Eastern diplomacy. Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and current head of the U.N. Development Program, is frequently mentioned. She has a high profile and is credited with doing a good job in her current role, but may not have the support of the U.S. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Danish prime minister, is considered a possible compromise candidate if no consensus arises.
The choice of secretary-general will say a lot about how the U.N. sees its own future. Does it want to be the kind of organization envisaged at its founding conference in San Francisco – one capable of acting with the authority of world opinion to tackle the most serious threats to international peace and security? Or is it content to be limited to dealing with the second-order issues of world affairs?
The people of Iraq, Syria and the Middle East as a whole are in no doubt about what they want. They need a U.N. with the power and influence to bring the conflict to an end, and they can’t afford to wait much longer.
Sajad Jiyad is an Iraq analyst based at Al-Bayan Center for Planning and Studies in Baghdad. He can be followed on Twitter @SajadJiyad. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.