Iraq's Future As The U.N.'s Man-In-Charge Sees It

Ad Melkert, the U.N.'s special representative for Iraq, rejects the idea that countries torn by factional violence crave a strongman. Host Scott Simon speaks with Melkert about the upcoming Iraqi elections and the U.N.'s ongoing mission in Iraq.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Iraqis are scheduled to hold parliamentary elections early next month amid political tension, factional infighting, the specter of sectarian violence. Ad Melkert is the special representative of the UN secretary general to Iraq and head of the UN mission in Baghdad. Mr. Melkert, thank you for being with us.

Mr. AD MELKERT (UN Special Representative): No, its great to be here.

SIMON: You think that these elections will give, potentially, Iraqis a lot to be proud about?

Mr. MELKERT: Yes, I am knocking on wood but still cautiously optimistic that Iraq is making steady progress basically to strengthen, say, the constitutional processes, legislation that they agreed upon to organize elections, which is basically only the second time after a first full term of democratically elected parliaments and not without friction, not without controversy, certainly not, but the controversy has also been part of a debate, of an open debate in the press and in parliament, eventually leading to consensus, which is on the acts of history of the country something very remarkable, it's unprecedented, what is happening there.

SIMON: Let me get you to talk about this, because having read an op-ed piece that you wrote this week, you seem to be genuinely impressed by the diversity of opinion and the vigor of a political culture in Iraq.

Mr. MELKERT: Yes, it is impressive when you realize that it wasnt there. It was not allowed, there was a dictatorship, and its picked up remarkably, and what we hope is that with decent preparations that are ongoing now it should be possible to have a good turnout on the election day, hopefully then dealing with complaints; there will be complaints, there will be efforts also to defraud, but to deal with the outcomes in a mature way and then to have with that the foundation for another four years of a legitimate parliament with a mandate provided by the people.

SIMON: There are people who believe that Iraq and countries like Iraq secretly desire a strongman.

Mr. MELKERT: Well, ask the Iraqi people in the first place, I would say. So their turnout and their expression of preference now in the elections will already be a big indication actually what they need. But you know, the problem with strongman is that once there is a strongman, and thats what we have seen with Saddam and his predecessors, is that they dont ask the people any more whether they like it. And thats why democracy is the best of the difficult alternatives to govern a country.

SIMON: What about Iraqs relationship with Iran?

Mr. MELKERT: Its a complicated one. There are very frequent and also open relationships between many politicians, the Iraqi side with their Iranian counterparts. There are also indications that there really efforts going on to influence politics in Iraq. But thats not only from the Iranian sides. Other neighboring countries are also quite involved in the business in Iraq. And frankly, I think its one of the problems of Iraq, that they are not sufficiently left alone to organize their own business.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MELKERT: At the same time, one should not forget in the 80s there has been a long time very bloody war between Iran and Iraq. Many people still carry the scars from that. There is competition going on between the two countries on the oil fields; recently there was even small effort by Iranian soldiers to incur into Iraqi territory for that purpose. They have issues with each other on the maritime access and the maritime borders. So its a mixed bag basically, if one looks at the relations between Iran and Iraq.

SIMON: Mr. Melkert, you had what I understand to be a notable career in politics in the Netherlands.

Mr. MELKERT: Well, thank you for saying that.

SIMON: And I ask for your political feel on this, because theres a phrase which I think I heard from Tom Friedman, the American columnist, speaking about countries that are trying to engender new democracies. As I first read it, his phrase was, hey, it will never be Switzerland. The implication being that sometimes those us from long-standing elective parliamentary democracies have unreasonable expectations about countries just trying to develop them.

Mr. MELKERT: Well, theres seem to be a good point in that. I would even argue, by the way, that Switzerland is not ideal as a democracy. And because democracy is always hard, is always about basically settling conflicts - so democracy is not that there's no conflicts. No, it's how you deal with it. Its a step-by-step process. And some more patience, some understanding from European or American observers would be very welcome, because this is a big experiment.

SIMON: Ad Melkert, the UN special enjoy to Iraq. Thank you very much.

Mr. MELKERT: You're welcome.

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