Last week I wrote that Paul Bremer, the American viceroy in Baghdad, was the best thing Americans have going for them in Iraq.
My reasoning: He is a pragmatist who will modify policies that boomerang -- even if those policies reflect the ideological goals of the Bush administration. Bremer has changed course on how to restore security, restart the economy and move toward an Iraqi elected government.
His next test will be whether he can shift course to get the political help he needs from the United Nations in the transition to Iraqi rule.
On security, Bremer quickly figured out that the Pentagon's decision to sack the whole Iraqi army was creating a body of angry armed men who could attack U.S. soldiers. So he not only approved pensions for cashiered troops but also did what should have been done before demobilization: He's hiring Iraqi soldiers to create a civil defense force that will relieve U.S. soldiers from having to protect Iraqi institutions.
On the economy, Bremer's early insistence on privatizing state-owned Iraqi industry (not including oil) hasn't flagged. This is a dangerously premature effort to restructure an unready Iraq into a free-market state before it has a government capable of coping with the social consequences.
But at least the American viceroy now recognizes the immediate need for a massive public works program to employ "tens of thousands" of Iraqis in a country where staggering unemployment fuels rage against U.S. troops. Bremer stated this week what President Bush has yet to admit: "... the American taxpayer is going to almost certainly be asked to spend some more money" to "consolidate the peace in Iraq."
The most fascinating course change, however, involves Bremer's deepening relationship with the United Nation's man in Baghdad, Sergio Vieira de Mello. The United States went to war without a U.N. mandate. But Security Council resolution 1483 (passed on May 22) recognizes a temporary U.S.-British occupation and provides for a Special U.N. Representative to Iraq with a consultative role.
The Bush administration doesn't want to give up control of the occupation, even though it is seeking more international troops and funding for Iraq. Most nations that might contribute sizable troop numbers say they want a new U.N. resolution that would put such a force, or even the entire Iraqi operation, under U.N. control.
U.N. officials, however, have no desire to administer Iraq as they did Cambodia or East Timor (where de Mello was in charge) because the Iraq job is too huge. Nor do they seek U.N. control over the troops in Iraq; that operation is much too dangerous for a "blue-helmet" peacekeeping force.
What U.N. officials feel they can usefully do is oversee the political process that will eventually lead to an elected Iraqi government. The world body played this kind of political role successfully in Afghanistan.
Such U.N. oversight could serve a vital purpose in Iraq. It would give legitimacy to the new Iraqi governing council as it moved toward constitutional rule. Otherwise, many Iraqis and other countries may view this interim body as a U.S. puppet. Bush administration officials, however, have shown no interest in the Afghan model.
Yet Bremer's pragmatism may still open the door for de Mello to play a key political role. The U.S. occupation authority is short on staff, funds and experience in setting up transition governments. U.N. officials gained such experience in Bosnia, Kosovo, Cambodia, and East Timor.
Meantime, de Mello has offered help in running an Iraq census, in setting up electoral rolls, and in helping the new Iraqi interim government set up shop. He also offered to help start an independent Iraqi national radio station. (Speaking of U.N. media expertise, the idea I raised in a previous column -- of using soap opera to communicate with Iraqis -- was tried successfully by U.N. officials in Cambodia.)
De Mello's endorsement of the Iraqi interim government should help it gain wide international acceptance. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has laid out other broad areas where his organization can help Iraqis transit to representative government.
Bremer knows he needs U.N. help. He is in a position to press the administration to accept a bigger U.N. political mission. Here's hoping his pragmatism triumphs again.