Can Washington disentangle itself from the lethal imbroglio of Iraq without radically revising the prickly, dismissive attitude it has maintained toward the United Nations for the past five years? I doubt it.
For if America's very vulnerable troop presence in Iraq is to be drawn down, either partially or – as I believe is necessary – wholly, and in anything like an orderly way, then that withdrawal must be negotiated. And no body but the UN can successfully convene these negotiations.
The strong support that the US military's engagement in Iraq once enjoyed from the US public has now crumbled. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that 56 percent of Americans said they would support legislation related to the Iraq war only if it includes a timetable for removing US troops from the country.
Even former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has shifted. In August 2005, he wrote in The Washington Post that "victory over the insurgency is the only meaningful exit strategy."
By January of this year, he was calling for a negotiated US troop exit without any mention of "victory." In an essay published May 31 in the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Kissinger noted that a "rapid unilateral [US] withdrawal would be disastrous." But he stressed, again, that in Iraq, "a political solution remains imperative."
I have been calling for a negotiated troop withdrawal from Iraq since 2003. However, my lengthy studies (and personal experience) of several conflicts during the past 30 years lead me to understand the complexity of the diplomacy required to convene and structure this negotiation.
The broad distribution of US troops throughout Iraq and the vulnerability of their supply lines make the task of extracting them and their equipment safely through the single, close-to-Iran choke point of Basra/Kuwait unthinkable unless a multilayered agreement on the modalities of this large-scale troop movement is reached in advance.
Who needs to be involved in negotiating this agreement? Iran, evidently, along with all of Iraq's other neighbors. Beyond that, the relevant Iraqi parties need to be involved, for it is only the Iraqi political and military organizations that can assure the US forces' safe exit from, and transit through, their own home turfs.
Can the presently constituted Iraqi government speak for all Iraqis in this? Given its current low standing with the Iraqi citizenry and its chronic dysfunctionality, I think not. Other Iraqi parties and movements need also to be involved.
So how can these two required levels of negotiation – international and intra-Iraqi – be convened? Kissinger, the authors of the Iraq Study Group report, and many others seem to assume that the US will be able to convene the needed negotiations.
I beg to differ. The US is itself too much a party to the many-layered conflicts in Iraq to have the political and diplomatic credibility to run these negotiations. For this reason, since early 2004 I have urged an approach similar to the one used by South Africa when it faced a very similar challenge in Namibia in 1988-89: It called in the United Nations.
I realize the UN has many organizational flaws. It also suffers from the deep distrust of many Iraqis. But there is no other organization that has the global legitimacy, political credibility, and institutional capacity that this job requires.
Any orderly US withdrawal from Iraq requires a leading role from the United Nations. It also requires a more capable and empowered UN than the one we see today, and this requires that the whole US political system undertake a serious recommitment both to the world body and to the egalitarian global values it embodies.
These tasks form the main challenge for America in the months ahead. The longer the American public and US leaders postpone dealing with them, the higher will mount the casualty toll in Iraq – among both Iraqis and US troops – along with the risks the Iraqi caldron poses to regional and world stability.
Because the Monitor is ending its regular columns, today's essay is my last as a Monitor columnist – a post I've held for 17 years.
I have been proud to write for a paper guided by high standards, strong values, and a desire to understand all the nations of the world. And I have been grateful for the opportunity to contribute my expertise here.
Mine was one of the few voices in mainstream media that seriously questioned the grounds on which the Bush administration took the US into the war in Iraq and that warned strongly and consistently that this war would be disastrous.
While my work may well appear in the Monitor in the future, I invite you to keep up with my writing at www.justworldnews.org.
• Helena Cobban is a Friend in Washington for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. The views expressed here are her own.