Still Worlds Apart on Iraq

Editorial

New York Times

November 26, 2004

Foreign ministers from all the right countries were present. The timing - two months before the scheduled date of Iraq's all-important elections - was promising. The Mideast location was symbolically apt. Too bad, then, that this week's big international conference on Iraq in the Egyptian seaside resort of Sharm el Sheik, bringing together all of Baghdad's neighbors and every permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, did so little to change the dismal overall equation.

The ministers came, they dined and they endorsed the familiar uncontroversial list of desirable goals. They encouraged free elections. They condemned terrorism. They endorsed Iraq's territorial integrity. They reiterated the importance of humanitarian assistance. Then, still fundamentally disagreeing about how to achieve these goals, they flew off again, without committing themselves to anything likely to make any real difference.

International conferences like these can be quite useful when the participants start out with some basic agreement about the nature of the problem and the outlines of some possible solutions. On Iraq, there is still no such agreement. More than 20 months after the United States unilaterally assumed responsibility for Iraq's future by invading without the support of the Security Council or most neighboring countries, it still finds itself largely on its own, with much of the rest of the world watching skeptically from the sidelines.

This is not a healthy situation - for Iraq, for the United States, for the Middle East or for the international community. How things go in Iraq over the next few months will probably have widespread and lasting consequences for all. And they are unlikely to go very well unless all, or at least most, of the governments represented at Sharm el Sheik begin actively working together.

But don't expect that to happen any time soon. The newly re-elected Bush administration seems more determined than ever to rely on military force to crush the Sunni insurgency, even if that means going ahead with elections next January that are not broadly inclusive. Most of the rest of the world, doubting that this strategy can bring security, legitimacy or real sovereignty, seems equally determined to remain largely aloof.

The preferred strategy seems to be to hope for the best and offer such low-risk gestures as forgiving bad Iraqi debt that would surely never be repaid anyway. But even debt relief, which Western and Japanese government creditors agreed to last weekend, is further than Iraq's major Arab creditors, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, are now prepared to go. That makes it far more difficult for the new Iraqi government to obtain the credit it will need to revive and rebuild a devastated country. And so far only Romania and tiny Fiji have offered soldiers for the protective force needed to send more election workers to Iraq.

That leaves America still going it almost alone. Apart from the British, most remaining multinational troops are more symbolic than militarily significant. Washington's other main partner is Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, who has not done enough to reach out to the estranged Sunni minority and now may be in danger of losing Shiite support to the new anti-American alliance of the former rebel leader Moktada al-Sadr and the former Pentagon favorite, Ahmad Chalabi.

The newly trained Iraqi security forces the administration likes to talk about still do not exist in large enough numbers to safeguard polling places in January, nor has their reliability under fire yet been convincingly demonstrated. The more than 135,000 United States troops now on long-term occupation duty cannot remain there indefinitely without seriously eroding America's worldwide readiness and credibility.

To begin changing this bleak picture, the Bush administration will have to work much harder at international bridge building than it did in its first term. Simply soliciting support for current American policies will not be enough. Washington must also be willing to consider changing some of those policies as part of a renewed process of international consultation. That might lead to more productive international conferences in the future.