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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 August, 2003, 16:49 GMT 17:49 UK
Richard Holbrooke
Richard Holbrooke
When American Marines were killed in Lebanon in the 1980s US politicians said if they had gone to fight then there were not enough of them. And if they had gone to die, there were too many.

You could say more or less the same about United Nations personnel in Iraq after the bomb attack in Baghdad.

The UN Secretary General says they will not be intimidated. But a partial evacuation of UN personnel has already occurred. The World Bank and IMF are pulling out their staff and the Japanese government is having second thoughts about sending some of their troops.

Gavin Esler spoke to the former US Ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, and started by asking him what sort of shape US policy in Iraq was in now.

I don't know, Gavin. I don't think anyone knows, but I think we have to start by understanding something, which is not fully realised in the US yet, and that is that the attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad yesterday was an attack on the United States and Great Britain, and the coalition forces. They picked the UN building and hotel, because it was a soft target, easily accessible. They also picked it because the UN, led by the great, great man Sergio Vieira de Mello, whose death the world should be mourning today, was supporting in every way the Anglo-American policy objectives in Iraq - peace, security, development. They went after it to get at us, an easier but equally obvious target. The people who chose him as their target and the UN knew that he was the most effective international civil servant in the country, and I might add to all people watching tonight in the United Kingdom, a very great man, whose loss is immense to all of us. He was a friend of mine for over twenty years.

You wrote very eloquently about that friendship today in the Washington Post, but you also said that in the United States, the UN is under recognised, over criticised and under funded. What kind of role do you think would be appropriate for the United Nations now in Iraq?

Gavin, let me be clear, the phrase you quoted was not a reference to the United States, the vast majority of Americans still support the UN, it was a reference to the policies of this administration. This administration needs to recognise what is self evident to your government in Britain, which is that the UN is an indispensable partner in the reconstruction, but on your basic point, under funded, under supported and over criticised- that is a specific reference to this administration. They shouldn't be weakening the UN with empty rhetoric and denial of funds. We should be strengthening the UN, and I would like to see us join with the UK, the French and the British and the Germans and so on tomorrow to put in a resolution to the security council authorising the UN to have its own self protection force with the ability to defend itself no matter what's necessary so the UN can come back in there and get on with the job.

That's a very significant point if I may say so. Is the implication of that, that if the United States and the Bush administration had been more supportive of the UN previously then the UN personnel in Baghdad would have been better protected?

Without a doubt that is true. I'm not going to say that the tragedy yesterday could have been prevented because suicide bombers smashing through concrete walls can always inflict damage. And Jerry Bremer was working closely with Sergio Vieira de Mello, but the fact is that over the last two years this administration has weakened the UN and it has been the British government while remaining our closest and most indispensable ally, that has tried to modulate this position. Sometimes with success, sometimes with insufficient success. I would hope that the government of Tony Blair will sit down with the United States government and say 'Lets authorise a separate UN force that protects the UN personnel so that we can go on with the rest of our job. Otherwise, security of the UN falls to the Anglo-American coalition which has many other things to do, and the UN isn't so happy about having Americans as the perimeter fence anyway, because it overly identifies them with the Americans.

The New York Times a week ago said that the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld vehemently opposes any dilution of US military authority over Iraq by the United Nations so it doesn't sound as if its going to happen.

Well let us see what happens in the next forty-eight hours, its my understanding that as you and I are talking this evening, this afternoon in New York the same issue is being debated in Washington and in New York. That Europeans are proposing a kind of international self protection force for the UN, that I've mentioned, a force which the French, Germans, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, could join, none of whom want to serve under the Anglo-American coalition. And that the position you just described of Secretary Rumsfeld remains his position. The tragedy that happened yesterday is either an opportunity to honour Sergio Vieira de Mello's memory and do the right thing, or an excuse to continue the same old, same old arguments. We'll know this within forty-eight hours.

Just one final thought, this would not be a blue helmeted force would it, because the blue helmets have been ruled out by Kofi Annan?

It is whatever force the security council wants, I don't care whether they wear blue helmets, not berets, but helmets. Whether they wear their national uniforms under a multi-national force of the sort you have Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor four years ago when De Mello was there, or whether they wear blue helmets. But if anybody goes into Iraq, they must have heavy weapons to defend themselves and have the authority to shoot first and ask questions later.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

Gavin Esler
spoke to the former US Ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke.


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