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[casi] US in Iraq: Experiment with Unilateral Humanitarianism

The United States in Iraq: An Experiment with Unilateral Humanitarianism

By Joel R. Charny, Vice President for Policy, Refugees International | June
26, 2003

Editor: Emira Woods, Institute for Policy Studies (IPS)

Foreign Policy In Focus

Operation Iraqi Freedom, the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the U.S. and
its coalition partners, embodies a new approach to post-conflict
humanitarian action. This approach unifies security, governance,
humanitarian response, and reconstruction under the control of the
Department of Defense. Humanitarian action is unilateral in character and
linked inextricably to the U.S. security agenda in the context of the global
war on terrorism. The UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations,
traditionally the coordinators and implementers of humanitarian assistance
and post-conflict reconstruction programs, are expected to play supportive
roles within an effort managed by the Pentagon.

While public attention has focused on the Iraq war as the expression of the
Bush administration's new national security policy of pre-emptive
self-defense, there has been virtually no public discussion of the
far-reaching implications of the administration's new approach to
humanitarian assistance and post-conflict reconstruction. These implications

==>  Militarizing humanitarian assistance to a degree not seen since the
founding of the UN and the expansion of the capacity and impact of global
nongovernmental organizations.

==>  Giving the military responsibility for diplomatic, political, and
humanitarian tasks that it is unqualified to perform effectively.

==>  Minimizing the contributions of donor governments and independent
agencies, since most foreign governments, UN agencies, and NGOs are
reluctant to collaborate with the U.S. military, thus vastly increasing the
financial and administrative burden on the United States.

The extent to which this approach constitutes a new U.S. doctrine, widely
applicable to humanitarian emergencies in the post-9/11 world, is unclear.
NGO discussions with Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Collins,
who runs the Pentagon's Stabilization Office and who has been the main
Defense interlocutor with the NGO community, suggest that at the very least
the Department of Defense will be in the lead in humanitarian operations in
emergencies involving the U.S. military. Dr. Collins told NGO
representatives after the start of the war that the placement of the
management of humanitarian and reconstruction work in post-conflict Iraq
within the Pentagon reflected an assessment of lessons learned from recent
post-conflict reconstructions efforts. The primary lesson, according to Dr.
Collins, is that lack of clarity on who held overall authority and the
difficulties of coordinating diverse actors--government leaders,
peacekeeping forces, UN agencies and personnel, and the commanders of
belligerent forces--plagued the efforts in Kosovo and Afghanistan. The
Pentagon's conclusion was that a single command of all aspects of the
post-conflict response was essential, and who better to exercise this
authority than the Department of Defense?

This approach represents a radical break from the multilateral character of
post-conflict efforts over the past decade in places such as Cambodia, East
Timor, the Balkans, and Afghanistan. While the record of these operations is
mixed, with only East Timor being an unequivocal success, UN leadership on
balance has been positive, especially in establishing the legitimacy of the
emerging post-conflict political authority. In Afghanistan, the UN
demonstrated that it could work on political issues within the framework of
a U.S-led military campaign. The UN Secretary General's Special
Representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, brilliantly managed the post-Taliban
political consultation process that resulted in the creation of the
internationally recognized Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai. Unilateral
political management by the U.S. would not necessarily have resulted in the
same outcome.

The early results of this approach in Iraq have not been promising. The
Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA)
excluded the UN and the NGOs from its pre-war planning on the grounds that
its plans were part and parcel of the war effort and therefore had to be
confidential. ORHA personnel were kept waiting in Kuwait on security grounds
for several weeks after the destruction of the Iraqi government. When ORHA
personnel finally did enter the country, they isolated themselves from the
Iraqi people and established themselves in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces,
in essence assuming the symbolic trappings of his rule. With no policing
capacity and the military unable to establish law and order, ORHA has been
slow to restore basic services and perform what was supposed to be its top
objective, establishing a legitimate Iraqi authority that could govern
locally as a national political dialogue was being prepared.

Indeed, one of the ironies of the experience in Iraq to date is that the
engagement of the Pentagon in humanitarian management has not been matched
by a similar commitment to apply military assets to the task of establishing
security for Iraqi civilians to enable them to go about their daily lives.
The U.S. failed to deploy military police, nor did it request its main
coalition partner, Great Britain, to send its military police units to Iraq.
The decision not to call on the British was especially puzzling, since its
military police has a reputation for effectiveness in post-conflict
environments such as that prevailing in Iraq. As a result, the lack of
local-level security has plagued the reconstruction effort from the outset
and has deeply disappointed Iraqis yearning for a sense of normalcy in their

Faced with the immensity of its task, ORHA is finally turning to the UN and
the NGOs for assistance. According to Refugees International's
representative in Iraq, recent meetings between ORHA and the NGOs in Baghdad
have included requests to NGOs to organize the clearance of military debris,
including damaged tanks, as part of their efforts to re-establish sanitation
services in the capital. ORHA personnel have also approached NGOs about the
possibility of their managing day-to-day operations in local hospitals. The
United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq is finally established in
Baghdad, and he is trying to define his responsibilities in relation to the
recently appointed head of the U.S. occupation authority, Ambassador L. Paul

The problem is that roles and responsibilities are being defined on an ad
hoc basis throughout the country, in the face of immense practical
difficulties, rather than having been planned collaboratively in advance.
The damage of the failure to give the UN and the NGOs a leadership role in
the post-conflict reconstruction process cannot be easily repaired on the
fly. The attempt to have the U.S. unilaterally manage the reconstruction
process in Iraq has been so problematic that it is jeopardizing U.S.
credibility as the occupying power with the Iraqi people.

The U.S. operational NGOs face real dilemmas in determining how to respond
to unilateral humanitarianism. The largest U.S. NGOs accept and, indeed,
depend on U.S. government funds to mount a large-scale humanitarian
response. The very act of accepting U.S. funding in Iraq is a tacit
endorsement of the unilateral U.S. approach, though to their credit, several
of the most well-known members of the U.S. NGO community--notably CARE, Save
then Children, and the International Rescue Committee--insisted that a
phrase be added to their agreements with the government stating that they
would engage with and report only to civilian agencies. These NGOs also
joined other members of InterAction, the membership organization for U.S.
NGOs involved in international relief and development work, in calling
consistently and forcefully for coordination of the humanitarian and
reconstruction effort in Iraq to be the UN's responsibility.

Iraq demonstrates that the new U.S. approach to humanitarian action is
unsustainable. While the war was a military success, creating a peaceful and
democratic Iraq is proving to be a challenge beyond the resources of the
wealthiest and most powerful country on the planet. An honest
post-operations analysis of the performance of ORHA, an analysis that NGOs
and congressional leaders will insist on, will perhaps reduce the hubris of
the Department of Defense and lead the administration back toward a more
inclusive, multilateral approach that builds on the positive aspects of the
nation-building efforts of the immediate post-cold war period.

(Joel R. Charny is vice president for policy with Refugees International
(online at, a Washington, DC-based
humanitarian advocacy organization. He wrote this for Foreign Policy in
Focus (online at

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