The terrible bombing of the UN offices in Baghdad has capped an accelerating series of sabotage actions against Iraqi water mains, oil pipelines, electricity grids–and US soldiers, hapless agents of this mess, who are killed daily. But most sharply, it highlights one fact: the end of “major combat operations” in Iraq announced by President Bush on May 1 was not the culmination of trouble but the beginning of an inevitable march into quagmire. The Bush administration has waded into a military adventure of breathtaking complexity brandishing a tonker-toy ideology of “spreading democracy,” on some Napoleonic agenda to reconfigure the entire Middle East. Yet in the real world of Iraqi society and politics, that naiveté has proved disastrous.
Over-stretched and poorly planned, the US occupation daily inflicts yet more suffering on a war-weary population. A still-crippled infrastructure, and brutal search and arrest tactics by US soldiers, inspire arching resentment and fury among Iraqi civilians. In this light, are massive explosions, orchestrated by an invisible resistance force, really surprising? To Saddam’s left-over thugs, outraged Iraqi nationalists are doubtless swelling the ranks of those willing to launch suicidal actions against the foreign invader. And not only Iraqi militants but any foresighted militant nationalists in the region might logically seek to sabotage the US occupation, if only to deter the US from trying the same venture elsewhere. How does any occupier combat such diverse and furtive resistance, which may not even be a true network? The outlook is very grim. As US officials swear even greater commitment to making it all work, and as the death count mounts, one can almost hear the old doomed Vietnam mantra, “peace with honor.”
Yet the explosion which wrecked the UN offices in Baghdad (the “worst day in UN history” according to some) signals something worse: that, at least for some well-armed militants, the UN itself has become seen as an arm of US foreign policy. Whether this impression is actually wrong is debatable–certainly UN employees are committed to their mission–but it is hardly foolish. Through the 1990s, the UN implemented the US-sponsored sanctions regime which wrecked Iraqi society. The UN Security Council recently endorsed the US-installed puppet government and effectively recognized the occupation by opening a UN mission office to help make it successful. In the meantime, the Bush administration has rejected any meaningful participation by other world powers (except its loyal retainer, Britain) in the rebuilding of Iraq. Other countries have indeed retreated in disgust from the White House’s funneling–in blazon crony fashion–of the country’s reconstruction contracts to Vice President Cheney’s former (and future?) company, Halliburton. By arriving to improve social conditions and foster “democracy” under such an occupation, the UN effectively becomes an accessory to it. For Iraqis outside the immediate pale of US and UN activities, the difference between the two is reduced to the color of flags and vehicles. In this context, a quisling UN has clearly manifested to someone as a legitimate target.
Unprecedented and heartbreaking, this attack on the UN has broader and even more frightening implications. If the UN itself is seen in Iraq as a legitimate target, what are the implications for UN efforts toward peace elsewhere? As the anti-US networks share ideas and training, will all dedicated UN volunteers be helplessly recast as local agents of US imperial interests? The fragile ethic of world cooperation sustained by the UN is fraying dangerously with its own reduction to a superpower flunky, a transformation signaled by this bombing. And if that damage continues? Instead of the hopeful march toward world peace which the UN and its many agencies represented, we may instead face an Orwellian state of permanent war: the “war on terrorism” which, already sweeping a vast range of complex conflicts under one label and ill-equipped doctrine, will drag us all into its quagmire.
VIRGINIA TILLEY is Associate Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. She can be reached at: TILLEY@hws.edu