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Rebuilding Iraq: Intermission on war’s stage an opportunity for humanitarian assistance (San Francisco Chronicle) April 13, 2003

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

Act One of the Iraqi drama — the bold liberation of its people by military force — has reached its climax, and plans for Act Two — the establishment of a new government — are under way. But in the interval between the acts lies a crucial phase: the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

The manner in which humanitarian aid is provided will set the stage politically and diplomatically for all that follows in Iraq, as well as for future military interventions in the new century.

There are three sets of actors to watch in this humanitarian assistance scene. The lead actor in previous dramas of this sort has been the United Nations. Following the major military interventions of the past decade — in Somalia, Rwanda, Kosovo and now Afghanistan — the United Nations has undertaken a primary leadership role and has received generally high marks for its humanitarian work. In Iraq, however, the United Nations is standing by, hoping for a callback, but uncertain of the role it will play.

Next are the many nonprofit NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) that raise and distribute funds in times of disaster and crisis. Chief among these hundreds of agencies is the International Committee of the Red Cross, which, like the United Nations, has an established track record and strong credibility in providing humanitarian assistance. A fundamental tenet of its work is that it be truly independent, and not a part of the foreign or military policy of any particular country.

Which takes us to the lead actors in this humanitarian assistance drama: the victorious coalition forces from Act One who are not planning to leave center stage for some time. President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair continue to debate behind the scenes, but so far all indications are that the United States will lead the humanitarian effort, with the military playing a key role. This would represent a fundamental paradigm shift from relief efforts of the 1990s and could leave traditional players such as the United Nations and the NGOs in a difficult position.

There is both good news and bad news in having the United States and its military take the lead rather than the United Nations. The good news is that large amounts of humanitarian aid are coming in from a wide array of nations, and the United States already has the boots on the ground to deliver food, water and other supplies quickly and safely. Using leadership in place also avoids another potentially contentious and time-consuming round at the United Nations, in the aftermath of the Security Council’s failure to act in the military phase.

The bad news is that, under traditional principles of humanitarian assistance, the Red Cross and other relief agencies cannot accept that aid from governments and distribute it under the umbrella of the U.S. military. The NGOs will feel they must either give up on helping the Iraqis in their hour of desperate need or forgo their independence as purely humanitarian organizations. The United Nations has already advised its workers to be careful not to be perceived as part of a military operation.

The cost of shifting the leadership of humanitarian aid away from multilateral organizations may be high, both in dollars and in ill will abroad.

Another option would be to continue down the road Bush and Blair embarked upon when they encouraged the United Nations to resume its Oil and Food program, and to call on the role United Nations — or even the International Red Cross — to plan a larger coordinating role.

The United States has led in the military campaign of Act One and will have a primary role in deciding about the postwar government in Act Two. Perhaps the place to give a nod in a more unilateral direction is in the humanitarian assistance phase by inviting the United Nations or the International Red Cross to provide the overall leadership. This bit of grace (and pragmatism) in victory might allow the military win to be followed by an important diplomatic and humanitarian success.

This op/ed appeared on Page E-5.

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