by Prof. Cynthia E. Ayers and COL (R) David W. Cammons
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Dept. of Defense, or any organization within the U.S. government.
“Get the U.S. out of the U.N.!,” a sign near Gettysburg shouts. “The United Nations sabotages America’s security,” author Eric Shawn declared in his book The U.N. Exposed. Iranian spokesman Gholam-Hossein Elham told reporters that the U.N. “must be relocated from the U.S.” And a few days after Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s rant before a U.N. audience, a New York Daily News editorial encouraged Chavez to “take the atrophied, self-abasing remains of a global idea 2,100 miles to Caracas!”
The idea of moving U.N. headquarters seems to resonate with many—those who believe that the U.S. is being manipulated by anti-American and anti-Israeli elements within the U.N., as well as those who feel that the U.S. is doing the manipulation. For Americans, it would of course mean the loss of a global status symbol—but it would also mean the reacquisition of valuable New York real estate, fewer cases of diplomatic immunity for the legal systems, and perhaps a reduction of anti-American sentiment worldwide.
Where should it go? Try Iraq. While moving the U.N. headquarters to Venezuela or Iran is probably not wise, moving it to Iraq might be a strategic coup. There is even a ready-made location for it—Saddam Hussein’s 600-room palace and compound constructed over the remains of the ancient city of Babylon. Americans might even consider footing the bill for the relocation.
Think about it. If the U.S. should be forced to abruptly withdraw from Iraq, a peacekeeping force—something similar to the International Security Assistance Force now in Afghanistan—would probably be deployed. Yet peacekeeping forces under temporary mandates, with all the associated communications problems, functional restrictions, and managerial arguments that so often spring from ego or nationalist pride, generally don’t work. They would be even less viable in a region like Iraq, where the threat of kidnapping and indescribable torture would keep many countries from participating. Relocating U.N. headquarters to Iraq, however, might actually be a reasonable alternative.
Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan agreed with member states’ demands for the U.S. to leave Iraq. Yet he admitted that any force reductions would have to be planned so as not to lead to greater violence and instability. Moving the U.N. to Iraq might be the only method of ensuring that a departure of U.S. forces would not leave the country and the region in chaos.
Considering the severe cutbacks in U.N. personnel within Iraq following the 2004 truck bombing of its Baghdad compound, the idea might seem ridiculous; but the mission of the U.N. is to promote and preserve peace. In order to maintain its fledgling democracy, Iraq needs international commitment, an inducement to stop factional violence, and a stable form of income not subject to the terrorists’ reprisals. It is hard to imagine a more visible and binding form of commitment than a change of such magnitude. The prestige factor alone might guarantee stability. Middle East leaders may seize upon the move as recognition of the region’s importance, thus stimulating their sense of self- and nationalist esteem while gaining further incentive for dealing with internecine conflict.
It would be to the benefit of all members to ensure the security of the new headquarters. A multinational coalition under the auspices of a colocated U.N. would be perceived as a more neutral and acceptable force. Additionally, since the security of the U.N. would rest on the stability of the new Iraqi regime and vice-versa, there would be a strong mutual interest in maintaining a working relationship between the multinational coalition and the security forces of Iraq.
As a model for coexistence, a resident U.N. headquarters could inspire the three factions within Iraq to forego violence, thus reducing the need for security forces. The move might even satisfy Iran’s leaders sufficiently for them to quit sending weapons into Iraq. Chavez (as a new-found friend of Iran’s president Mahmud Ahmadinejad) and possibly even militant Islamic extremists (Sunni or Shi’a) would find it hard to justify verbal or physical attacks against a U.N. headquarters based in the heart of the Middle East.
New York is an expensive city, and representation at the U.N. is currently a costly endeavor. Poor countries would benefit from the move, since costs associated with membership would be drastically reduced. Representatives who may have been selected specifically because of social status and wealth might be replaced with individuals who maintain a higher commitment to the U.N. mission. The remaining big spenders should have a positive effect on the Iraqi job market and improve the overall economy of the entire region, which might in turn reduce the tendency to engage in violence. With such a large and formidable presence, fundamental human rights issues ranging from honor killing and female infanticide to state-imposed death sentences for children, religious converts, and political dissidents (as opposed to those which U.S. representatives have publicly identified as having been driven by “anti-Israeli bias”) could be more effectively addressed, transforming the region developmentally in the process.
What’s in it for the United States? For those Americans disappointed with the malfeasance often associated with U.N. leadership, the move would be a victory. It could be similarly spun for those who feel that the U.S. has not been sufficiently deferent to or reliant
upon the U.N.—an implication that the U.N. could and should do what the sole superpower could not. Domestically, the move would be a win-win scenario.
Globally, a move from American soil—where location might appear to indicate ownership—could reduce anti-Americanism. It might change the perception of the U.S. from that of a superpower with imperial aspirations to simply a member of a global force for peace; thus, a positive diplomatic scenario.
Recent debates over U.S. involvement in Iraq seem to focus on only two alternatives—a surge or an immediate reduction in force. The issue has become a politically polarized hot-potato. The search for alternatives seems to have stalled—but if there is to be hope for stability in the Middle East, consideration must be given to all possible solutions. The idea of relocating U.N. headquarters to Iraq should therefore be open for discussion, and not simply dismissed as untenable.
Prof. Ayers is a Visiting Professor and COL Cammons (U.S. Army Retired) is a former Senior Research Associate at the U.S. Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership.
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