Bush’s Tilt to U.N. Shifts Iraq Debate

Times Staff Writer

President Bush’s increasing reliance on the United Nations in Iraq is unsettling some of his political allies, but blunting Sen. John F. Kerry’s main argument against the administration’s strategy for restoring stability there.

In the last week, Bush has scrambled the American debate over the occupation of Iraq by declaring that he will defer to U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on the selection of the Iraqi government that will assume power after June 30.

Bush had long resisted a major role for the U.N. in Iraq. His new move has blurred the contrast between him and the Massachusetts senator, who has insisted for months that the United States would not attract more military and financial support in Iraq unless it ceded the international community more control over development of the new Iraqi government.

Kerry and his advisors insist that Bush still has not done enough to share authority in Iraq, but some Democrats acknowledge that his shift may make it tougher for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee to distinguish his approach from the administration’s.


“There are still ways you can emphasize the difference, but it is harder,” said Ivo Daalder, a National Security Council aide under President Clinton.

For Bush, the cost of his maneuver is restiveness on the right. An undercurrent of concern among conservatives about Brahimi’s broadening role surfaced Tuesday with a Wall Street Journal editorial denouncing the change.

“Everybody is uneasy,” said Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, a neoconservative foreign policy think tank. “It may well be that this is the best of bad alternatives, but it is certainly the case that this is an awful big policy shift and people have serious doubts about whether it will succeed.”

Yet many Republican strategists consider such anxiety among conservatives a reasonable price for complicating Kerry’s case against the administration on one of the campaign’s most volatile issues.

With his move toward Kerry’s position, Bush has demonstrated how quickly an incumbent can change the terms of debate in a presidential election by co-opting his opponent’s positions. In effect, Bush has thrown Kerry off balance by letting go of the rope in their tug of war over Iraq -- just as Clinton did in 1996, when he signed a revised welfare reform bill after Bob Dole, his Republican opponent, had condemned him for vetoing earlier versions.

“What would have been a seminal issue in the campaign -- going it alone [in Iraq] -- has now gotten away from Kerry,” said GOP strategist Scott Reed, Dole’s 1996 campaign manager. “The ground has shifted.”

Kerry advisors emphatically reject that Brahimi’s new prominence ends the debate on whether Bush has pursued a flawed policy in Iraq. But they agree that the president’s adjustment will force Kerry to reformulate his arguments -- a process that has begun in recent days.

Many observers agree that the administration has turned to Brahimi because efforts by L. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, to forge agreement among Iraqis were foundering amid rising anti-American attitudes. In that sense, the administration may have enhanced Brahimi’s role more by necessity than choice.

But having made that decision, the administration has embraced the increased U.N. influence. Last week, senior officials did not blink when Brahimi unveiled a plan that would establish a new “caretaker government” on June 30 to replace the existing Iraqi Governing Council, which includes Ieaders, such as Ahmad Chalabi, who enjoy wide support among U.S. conservatives.

That plan has drawn protests from some of the war’s staunchest supporters. Richard Perle, former head of the Pentagon’s outside advisory board, questioned whether Brahimi, a Sunni Muslim from Algeria, was “creating the impression” that the Sunnis who dominated under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would gain prominent positions in the new regime.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page, a leading voice among conservatives, on Tuesday complained that “the Iraqis the U.S. has spent a year working most closely with will be cashiered in favor of unknowns chosen by an Algerian who works for [U.N. Secretary-General] Kofi Annan.”

Bush, in a joint news conference Friday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, gave Brahimi almost unlimited latitude to design the interim Iraqi government, which is slated to retain power until January, when elections for a permanent government are planned. Asked who would serve in the interim government, Bush said, “That’s going to be decided by Mr. Brahimi.”

Asked if Brahimi had carte blanche to design the interim government, one senior White House aide said, “More or less, but with the understanding ... that this is something that has to be democratic, has to be by June 30 and has to be widely accepted by the Iraqis.”

Since fall, Kerry has argued that the United States should delegate to the U.N. the authority for managing Iraq’s transition to self-government, to increase the effort’s credibility inside Iraq and improve the odds that other nations would contribute money and troops to its reconstruction.

With Bush stepping toward that position, Kerry has struck three principal notes.

One is that Bush is only belatedly “doing what I and others have recommended for some period of time,” as Kerry put it Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Politically, that’s a difficult argument to sell, many observers agree: After a president is identified with a position, it is difficult for a challenger to score many points with voters by insisting he held it first. “Once a president is there,” said Reed, “he’s there.”

Second, Kerry has argued that Bush has not delegated enough authority to the international community to attract more financial or military commitments in Iraq.

The senior White House aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House envisioned the U.N. playing a “vital role” in designing the pathway toward the 2005 elections and in providing technical expertise to the interim government. But the aide acknowledged that the administration had not specified how much authority the U.N. would exercise after June 30.

Third, recently Kerry has suggested that even if Bush shares more responsibility for reconstruction, other nations will still refuse to provide much financial or military help because the president has alienated them on other issues.

“It may well be that we need a new president, a breath of fresh air, to re-establish credibility with the rest of the world,” Kerry said on “Meet the Press.”

Advisors say Kerry is likely to increasingly highlight that argument. In effect, as Bush spotlights his heightened dependence on the U.N. in Iraq, the Kerry campaign hopes to shift the focus from tactics to results -- especially if even after June 30, the United States still is bearing most of the cost and casualties in Iraq.