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The Role of the UN in Post-War Iraq

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Amidst the partisan debate over the Iraq war, one inescapable conclusion looms for all Americans. The problems facing Iraq are not going away -- not according to the U.S. election calendar, and certainly not for the millions of Iraqis affected by the conflict.

What this means is that, On Day One of the next administration, the new president will still be dealing with many of the same questions that the quandary of Iraq poses today. President Bush has committed to postpone any further troop reductions, so in all likelihood, the United States will enter 2009 with over 100,000 troops still in Iraq.

With such a large troop presence, a hyper-accelerated withdrawal seems impractical and, most likely, inadvisable. The reality is that we probably will not be able to get every American out of Iraq within 60 days, as Senators Obama and Clinton have proposed -- nor, however, should we maintain a troop presence there for 100 years, as Senator McCain has suggested.

Many On Day One users have eagerly called for the next president to prioritize bringing American troops home from Iraq as soon as possible. Tricia Kiell calls on Congress to "push legislation to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq." Congresswoman Barbara Lee says that the new administration should "end the U.S. occupation in Iraq." And Peacebebe08 proclaims simply, "AMERICANS WANT OUT OF IRAQ!"

Recent polls confirm that many Americans do desire an end to the war in Iraq -- and preferably sooner rather than later. But often lost in the debate over troop withdrawals -- a debate that has become inextricably tied to political posturing -- is the question of how Iraq will rebuild after over five years of war. Even after U.S. withdrawal, the country will face daunting challenges: strengthening its political system, reconciling deeply scarred segments of its population, and facilitating the return of millions of displaced civilians, among other significant obstacles.

As Justin Logan and Matt Yglesias point out, the U.S. does not have a very good record of nation-building. For this reason, and because of the antagonism that the U.S. presence has generated among Iraqis, American troops are probably not the best choice for helping Iraq along the course of post-conflict reconstruction. This does not mean, however, that the U.S. need abandon Iraq wholesale once the last American soldier leaves.

The last best hope for Iraq is an international solution. Instead of opting for a unilateral course, toward either complete withdrawal or a century-long occupation, the next president should, on the first day of his or her presidency, commit to working with the international community to strengthen Iraq's institutions, quell the lingering violence, and maintain regional stability. In a recent report, leading Iraq expert and Brookings Institution scholar Carlos Pascual lays out just this course of action, offering several recommendations of how exactly the U.S. can better achieve its goals in Iraq by working actively with the rest of the world.

The world's leading global institution -- the United Nations -- is already fulfilling a crucial role in Iraq. The UN has taken the lead in addressing some of the country's most pressing issues: providing sorely-needed humanitarian assistance, organizing the country's historic elections and aiding political reconciliation, and responding to the needs of the 4.8 million displaced Iraqis. Moreover, because the UN is seen as more neutral than the Coalition forces in the eyes of Iraqis, it enjoys a much broader opening to help rebuild Iraqi society.

As nearly all sides of the debate over the war have acknowledged, Iraq requires more than just a military solution. Similarly, though the call to withdraw U.S. troops clearly resonates with many voters, an immediate American exit will not on its own guarantee a safer and more stable Iraq.

Whatever policies the next U.S. president adopts, it will inevitably take the efforts of the entire international community to help Iraq emerge from such a devastating war. Put simply, to address the vital humanitarian and political challenges of a postwar Iraq, the United States will need the UN. And to sustain its crucial presence in Iraq, the UN will need the committed support of the next president of the United States. Any other course of action risks both ignoring the sentiments of American voters and jeopardizing the fragile situation of millions of Iraqis.