I chanced last week to run into a senior staff member of UNAMI, which is the little-known (and somehow not very reassuring) acronym for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. You could read acres of news from that country as it undergoes everything that the death squads of the parties of God can inflict on a society, without ever being reminded that coalition forces are applying a U.N. mandate for the reconstruction and democratization of Iraq. The assaults by the Baathists and the Bin Ladenists on the U.N. presence have been especially vicious: The U.N. headquarters in Baghdad were utterly demolished by military-grade explosives three years ago, murdering among others the heroic Sergio Vieira de Mello, a senior U.N. peacemaker who was explicitly targeted by the Islamists for his role in overseeing the independence of "Christian" East Timor from "Muslim" Indonesia.
East Timor is not the only place where U.N.-mandated missions, backed by American force, have run into grave difficulty and seen expectations disappointed by local vandalism and tribalism, sometimes but not always abetted by outside powers. Things are not going very well in Haiti, either, or in Lebanon, where the U.N. tribunal on the assassination of the country's former elected leader has got off to a very poor start. The opposition of Hezbollah and the Syrian dictatorship to the idea is seconded by the votes of China and Russia—on the laughable grounds that the U.N. investigation, rather than the original murder and destabilization, would constitute an intervention in Lebanon's "internal affairs." (Syria does not even recognize Lebanon as an independent state, and meanwhile lends overt and covert help to the suicide gangs in Iraq, as does its Iranian senior partner, so it doesn't believe that the Lebanese people have any "internal affairs" in the first place.) Meanwhile, in the Palestinian territories, gang warfare and chaos and kidnapping and mayhem are more and more the rule and constitute a mockery of the huge and costly efforts of the European Union, the United Nations, and the wider multipower supervision of the United States and Russia.
Yet in only one of these cases is the clamor simply for withdrawal and capitulation. Even my friend in UNAMI essentially took the prevailing view that Iraq, and the Iraqis, should now be abandoned. His was a more tender-minded restatement of what I had read a few days before, when Rep. John Murtha—that highly sophisticated spokesman of the new Democratic majority—was asked his reaction to the possibility of a hellish post-withdrawal Baghdad. "They'd better get used to the idea" was the gist of his response.
I make the presumption that the political difference here is the following: American soldiers are not being killed every day in the attempt to salvage East Timor and Haiti and Gaza and Lebanon. In that case, we had better hope that the toll in, say, Afghanistan, does not rise any higher or faster. And we had better hope that forces among the Lebanese and Palestinians are strong enough to do our fighting for us. (A very striking recent report quoted spokesmen from Hamas becoming extremely worried by the growth of al-Qaida in Palestinian refugee camps, where every economic and cultural initiative is now being interdicted by absolutist fundamentalism. It would be amusing to see these glib spokesmen for Muslim fanaticism being outflanked and menaced from the right, if it were not so terrifying.)
So, I posed the following question to my UNAMI comrade, who had said to me in so many words that things in his Iraqi bailiwick "could not be worse." Are you so sure that they could not be very much worse? In particular, what are you going to do about Kurdistan? In this region of Iraq, the local leadership has done almost everything that could have been asked of it by the United Nations or the United States. It maintains its own security, does not require foreign troops, has put an end to sectarian warfare among Kurds, fights against al-Qaida with some success, maintains a high regional standard for pluralism and democracy, and has enough left over to contribute soldiers to the policing of Baghdad and Fallujah. His response was to say, "The civil war will spread there, too." I didn't know whether to be more struck by his fatalism or his cynicism.
There's no doubt that he has a point. In two front-page stories last week, one read of attempts being made to drive the Kurds out of the northern city of Mosul and of the blowing-up of a major bridge that helps connect Baghdad to the Kurdish-majority city of Kirkuk. And this is only a dress rehearsal for what is to come as the people of Kirkuk get ready to vote on whether to affiliate themselves to the Kurdish autonomous region. Al-Qaida has made the sabotage of this vote a major effort and is sparing no atrocious tactic in its campaign of ethnic cleansing and clerical terror. So, what is all this idle babble about the conflict in Iraq being a "distraction" from the fight against Bin Laden? A very clear and bright line is being drawn in a country of vast strategic and economic importance. On one side of it stand the Iraqis who are willing to fight the common enemy of civilization, and on the other stands—what? Before we think about casting our own votes, we need to hear from every candidate whether he or she includes in their "withdrawal" package the abandonment of Kurdistan. And it would be nice to hear from the Bush administration, as well, a few crisp words on the identical subject. If we are not for ourselves, then who will be for us?