Diplomatic Diary: Remember Diplomacy?

You'd think the diplomacy had come to an end once the war began. After all, as Winston Churchill once quipped, it's a choice between talking and fighting: "To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war." Yet as the war in Iraq shifts from a first week of euphoric reporting to a second week of heavy fighting, the diplomacy shows every sign of sparking back to life.

Tony Blair, the British prime minister, arrives at Camp David later this week for a hastily-arranged session with the president. At the top of Blair's agenda: not the war itself, but the soft stuff that follows after the shooting ends. At a press conference in Downing Street, Blair spent as much time discussing the humanitarian situation in Iraq as the military operations in his opening remarks. Compare that with Bush's brief speech at the Pentagon where he presented his additional war budget. There the president devoted just two lines to the issues of "relief and reconstruction in a free Iraq."

Blair's concerns revolve around three problems that the Bush administration has effectively kicked down the road until the war is closer to an end. One is how to mend fences after the bitter international dispute at the United Nations. The second is how to win the world's support by averting a humanitarian crisis in Iraq. And the final problem is how to shape a new Iraq after Saddam's regime dies. With all three challenges, the administration's policy has been to wait and see: once victory becomes clearer, senior officials have said for several weeks, the world will come around.

Blair's urgency suggests he may be having second thoughts about the wait-and-see approach. Not least because all three problems are now intersecting at our favorite location for international debate: the U.N. Both the Brits and the Americans thought it would be a slamdunk to push through a new resolution dealing with the U.N.'s role in the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, as well as the longer-term reconstruction. That has not quite proved to be the case. "I will see President Bush at Camp David to discuss not just the military campaign but also the diplomatic implications of recent events for the future," explained Blair. "In particular, how we get America and Europe working again together as partners and not as rivals, to assess the best way of dealing with the humanitarian crisis in Iraq...how we rebuild Iraq post-Saddam, and also, of course, our approach to the Middle East peace process and to the Arab world more generally."

In fact, the Bush administration has already woken to the latest diplomatic rudeness at the U.N. Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, traveled to the U.N. on Tuesday, and Secretary of State Colin Powell twice called U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan on the same day. The new resolution concerns how to feed the Iraqi people. Under the so-called oil-for-food policy of sanctions, the U.N. has effectively micro-managed the legal part of the Iraqi economy--trading oil revenues for humanitarian goods. Now, more than ever, the Iraqi people desperately need those humanitarian supplies, as well as the support of U.N. agencies. The new resolution would place Kofi Annan--or a special envoy of his choosing--as the effective administrator of Iraqi oil revenues, and oversee the humanitarian work of the U.N.'s aid agencies.

But it would also become one of the building blocks of a new Iraq, and there lies the indigestible fact of life for our old friends, the French. The French president Jacques Chirac said last week that he would oppose a new U.N. resolution that would legitimize the occupation of Iraq by U.S. and British forces. "This idea of a resolution seems to me to be a way of authorizing military intervention after the event, and so is not, in my point of view, fitting in the current situation," he told a news conference in Brussels, Belgium. So the old wounds have not yet healed. For their part, U.S. officials say they are not seeking to exclude France from a new Iraq, but warn that ordinary Iraqis might do just that. "Ultimately the decisions will be for the Iraqis to take," explained one senior State department official, "and they might want to take a view on who helped them and who didn't."

The Bush administration is not waiting for the U.N. to work on humanitarian aid. It is already buying more than 100,000 metric tons of food to feed two million Iraqis for three months. U.S. aid officials are "almost embedded" in military units, according to a senior administration official, so they can take over disaster assistance work as soon as the shooting ends. The U.S. has also sent a diplomatic cable to more than 40 countries to ask if they would contribute police to the new Iraq: one of the tasks of nation-building that the Bush administration loathes to hand over to its own troops.

Unfortunately for the administration, the coalition is proving hard to assemble while there remains an open debate inside Washington over Iraq's political future. Following the model of post-Taliban Afghanistan, officials plan for an interim Iraqi authority that will be "representative" of its ethnic groups but not democratically-elected. But unlike Afghanistan, the new Iraqi government will mostly be run by its current officials. "Most of the Iraqi bureaucracy, and most of the Iraqi infrastructure, will be left intact," said the senior State official.

However, the most contentious issues--the proportions of ethnic groups to one another, the number of exiles versus insiders--are still unresolved. That is proving a further complication in one of the most painful areas of coalition-building to date: Turkey. Aside from the failure to secure Turkish bases for a northern front, and aside from the lengthy negotiations to open up Turkish airspace to U.S. warplanes, the administration has also been spending time soothing Turkish fears about the new Iraq.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the president's special envoy to free Iraqis, met with the Turkish government last week as well as Iraqi opposition groups, to flesh out U.S. plans for a representative government in Baghdad. Khalilzad, who directed U.S. policy on the political reconstruction of Afghanistan, attempted to reassure Turkey that Iraq would remain whole and that its ethnic allies, the Turkoman, would play a full role in a new Iraqi government. But he also warned Turkey to stay out of northern Iraq, in spite of earlier talks with the administration that the Turkish military could help to stabilize its border with the Kurdish region of Iraq. Turkey has long feared that an independent Kurdistan could push its own Kurdish population to split Turkey apart.

That's a message that Powell has repeatedly echoed as the diplomacy begins to move almost as fast as U.S. infantry through the Iraqi desert. At a meeting at the State department the day before the first air strikes in Baghdad, Powell told his senior staff that the time for the old diplomacy was over. "We are now moving into a new phase of our diplomacy," Powell said. "That has to do with managing the coalition and preparing for the aftermath. And the aftermath may be the most difficult part."

If the recent preparations are anything to go by, Powell may well be proved right.

Diplomatic Diary: Remember Diplomacy? | News