The Baghdad bomb, the United Nations, and America

Johanna Mendelson Forman
20 August 2009

The sixth anniversary since a bomb of August silenced the United Nations voice in Baghdad is a moment for commemoration of and tribute to the twenty-two people who lost their lives, and the approximately 150 who were wounded. It is also more: for the horrific truck-bomb attack of 19 August 2003 on the Canal Hotel which served as the UN headquarters in Iraq is now a key moment in history.

Johanna Mendelson Forman is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, in both the Americas Program and the William E Simon Chair of Political Economy. Among her publications is Investing in a New Unilateralism: A Smart Power Approach to the United Nations (CSIS, January 2009)

Also by Johanna Mendelson Forman in openDemocracy:

"Things Kofi Annan can do now" (17 April 2003)

"We cannot afford to fail" (23 July 2003) - with colleagues from the Iraq Reconstruction Assessment Mission

"From the ashes: a multilateral mission?" (22 August 2003)

"The UN in 2003: a year of living dangerously" (18 December 2003)

"The nation-building trap: Haiti after Aristide" (11 March 2004)

"A 21st century mission? The UN high-level panel report" (25 November 2004) - with D Austin Hare

"In Larger Freedom: Kofi Annan's challenge" (23 March 2005)

"President Bush discovers the world is flat" (19 September 2005)

"Open veins, closed minds " (7 May 2009) - with Peter DeShazo Inside the United Nations headquarters, the event is considered the organisation's equivalent of 11 September 2001. For the UN, the terrorist bombing - four months after the United States-led military coalition had after a three-week campaign toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein - marked a turning-point in its ability to work as an agent of collective security in a changing world. It led to a re-examination of the UN's role, embodied in the then secretary-general Kofi Annan's document In Larger Freedom; this ultimately resulted in a new manifesto for the institution, presented in the general assembly's sixtieth-anniversary summit on 14-16 September 2005.  It also contributed to a new awareness of the vulnerability of humanitarian workers in conflict-zones, symbolised by the inauguration on 19 August 2009 of a World Humanitarian Day.

The Iraqi vortex  

The Baghdad attack robbed the United Nations of fifteen fine and potential-rich servants, as well as taking the lives of others tragically caught by it; they include two NGO representatives, a diplomat, a translator, a contract worker, and the human-rights lawyer Arthur C Helton (also a co-writer of an openDemocracy column into refugee and displacement issues with his close colleague Gil Loescher, who was badly wounded in the blast).

Also among those who died was one of the greatest humanitarian civil servants, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was courageously leading the UN effort in Iraq. His death represented the loss of a vital interlocutor between the US-led coalition and the international community at a critical moment in relationships between the US, the UN, and the rest of the world.  Indeed, his very international stature - including his role in helping to oversee the independence of East Timor from Indonesian rule, explicitly cited by al-Qaida as part of the twisted logic that justified his murder - had arguably made the UN in Iraq an even more visible and vulnerable target for terrorists. 

In his brief period in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello had pleaded for greater understanding of the Iraqi street and its voices amid the chaos of post-war administration. These were ignored, and the silencing of this voice of reason marked the beginning of a bitter insurgency and civil war that raged in Iraq until 2005-06. It took a long time before much-needed shifts in Washington's military policy and thinking filtered through to better policy on the ground; even after six years, the security situation remains unsettled and the establishment of working relationships with Iraqi leaders have proved tough. How much of a difference Sergio Vieira de Mello would have made here is one of the many unanswered questions of this violent period (see Samantha Powell, Chasing the Flame: One Man's Fight to Save the World [Penguin, 2008]).

The destruction of the Canal Hotel also marked the nadir of multilateralism, and an awful symbol of how the George W Bush administration's foreign-policy "exceptionalism" had destroyed the promise of international cooperation. The leading officials of the administration in effect relegated the UN to the trash-heap of global institutions, opting instead for an approach to international relations that in the end served no interest but to wreak more death and destruction on the "liberated" citizens of Iraq. This posture had started to shift by the time the Bush administration neared its end in 2008-09, but the damage wrought by the events in Iraq was enduring.  

The American military forces in Iraq - amounting to 130,000 troops - have as of 30 June 2009 officially withdrawn from major urban centres, as part of the process scheduled to lead to a final exit of troops by December 2011. The situation on the ground is now the responsibility of the Iraqi government's security forces, which have assumed the role of a state-security sector. There are signs of progress, including the existence of an elected government (and the prospect of another round of parliamentary elections in January 2010); progress in advancing the sovereignty of the Iraqi state, and in judicial and other institutions; the development of the Iraqi economy; and greater participation of its citizens in governance. 

But violent attacks continue, as in Baghdad itself on the 19 August anniversary; the potential for further outbreaks persists (in contested cities such as Kirkuk, and elsewhere); and many Iraqis who fled abroad during the nightmare years are reluctant to return. It has been a longer and much more painful road than might have been travelled if wiser policies had been followed.

Out of the rubble

The perspective of six years also highlights the importance of the improved relationship between the United States and the United Nations that are the result of the election of Barack Obama in November 2008. The new US president has outlined "a new era of engagement" in US foreign policy of which multilateralism is a cornerstone. It is a change that has profound implications for the UN, and is worth considering on this anniversary.   

Some remarks by the US's permanent representative to the UN, Susan Rice, are in this respect a revealing indicator of the future direction of US diplomacy:

"When the United States joins others to confront these challenges, it's not charity. It's not even barter. In today's world, more than ever, America's interests and our values converge. What is good for others is often good for us. When we manifest our commitment to tackling the threats that menace so many other nations; when we invest in protecting the lives of others; and when we recognise that national security is no longer a zero-sum game, then we increase other countries' will to cooperate on the issues most vital to us...We build will by pursuing pragmatic, principled policies and explain them with intelligence and candour. And in the broadest sense, we build will when others can see their future as aligned with ours...All of this helps explain why so many of America's security interests come together today at the United Nations."

The UN general assembly will convene for its sixty-fourth session on 15 September 2009. President Obama's address will be an opportunity to reaffirm both the US's renewed support for multilateralism and the continued vitality of the ideals of 1945: commitment to a strong international legal order, and to the universality of UN membership as the key source of legitimacy of the whole organisation's decision-making power. These commitments are both right in themselves and in America's own best interests, a combination that reflects secretary of state Hillary Clinton's emphasis on the need for the US to pursue a "smart power" approach.

Indeed, US and UN interests are set to align in the 2009-12 period on a host of issues: among them threats to peace and security, climate change, global health concerns and managing humanitarian operations. That alignment will be reinforced if the US takes a leadership role in promoting reform of the UN where it is most needed, including in improving the secretariat and its agencies.

A principled and effective multilateral policy by the Barack Obama administration is crucial to United States's rebuilding of its reputation in the community of nations, at a time of great fluidity and complexity in international relations. A strong US-UN relationship will be a vital part of this effort. As both institutions seek to match the needs of this challenging new era, the best of the tragically brief first UN mission in Iraq - the willingness to listen and as well as the need to be heard, the emphasis on cooperation, the instinct to engage - can be an inspiration.

Also in openDemocracy on the Baghdad bomb of 19 August 2003 and its aftermath:

Caspar Henderson & David Hayes, "Arthur Helton: a tribute" (21 August 2003)

Guy S Goodwin-Gill, "Arthur Helton: agent for the dispossessed" (22 August 2003)

Sergio Vieira de Mello, "A world of dignity" (24 August 2003)

Anita Sharma, "The UN Baghdad bombing: one month on" (17 September 2003)

Gil Loescher, '"I was not going to die in the rubble'" (4 December 2003)

Gil Loescher, "Living after tragedy: the UN Baghdad bomb, one year on"  (19 August 2004)

Arthur C Helton & Gil Loescher's fourteen openDemocracy columns can be found here


Also in openDemocracy on the United Nations after Iraq:

Patricia Lewis, "The UN and Iraq: time to get serious" (14 March 2003)

Frank Vibert, "The new cosmopolitanism" (20 March 2003)

Edward Mortimer, "Is the UN obsolete? A response to Frank Vibert" (2 April 2003)

Phyllis Bennis, "Reform or die: the United Nations as second superpower" (16 December 2004)

Kofi Annan, "America, the United Nations, and the world: a triple challenge" (17 June 2004)

Dan Plesch, "The hidden history of the United Nations" (18 May 2005)

Shashi Tharoor, "A United Nations for a fairer, safer world" (14 September 2005)

Tony Millett, "The UN's real history: a response to Dan Plesch" (22 November 2005)

Fred Halliday, "The United Nations vs the United States" (13 January 2006)

David Mepham, "The next United Nations leader: a time for transparency" (30 August 2006)

Mariano Aguirre, "Power and paradox in the United Nations" (7 November 2006)

Carne Ross, "Music in the Security Council" (26 February 2007)

Carne Ross, "United Nations in trouble: time for another San Francisco" (12 November 2008)


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData