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Heraldo Munoz’s solitary war

Heraldo Munoz

"This was not a war of necessity. This was a war of choice," says alumnus Heraldo Muñoz, Chilean ambassador to the U.N. Photo: Casey Kelbaugh

Heraldo Muñoz (MA ’76 and PhD ’79 international studies) is Chile’s ambassador to the United Nations. He was appointed to the post in June 2003, just after the U.S. launched its March invasion of Iraq. At the time, Chile was an elected member of the U.N. Security Council, and Muñoz played an active role in the diplomatic events that unfolded over the following years. In 2004 he served as president of the Security Council.

Troubled by what he sees as the Bush administration’s rejection of multilateral foreign policy, Muñoz has written a behind-the-scenes account of the events surrounding the Iraq war, beginning with the U.S. attempt to seek a Security Council resolution approving the invasion and continuing through the occupation of Iraq. Along the way, he explores the United States’ changing stance on the U.N.’s role in Iraq.

A Solitary War: A Diplomat’s Chronicle of the Iraq War and Its Lessons was released in spring 2008 by Fulcrum Publishing. Shortly after its publication, Muñoz met with the University of Denver Magazine to discuss the book. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.


DU: You began writing this book right after the invasion. Why?

Well, I had to get this story off my chest. … I am a political appointee ambassador, and in addition, I’m an academic. I’m used to writing. And I thought this was a story that needed to be told…. It was something that I needed to write because we were so frustrated with having been unable to keep the war from happening. What was more striking to me was how the U.S. did a U-turn — from having said that the United Nations was irrelevant, that it had not lived up to its responsibilities because it had not disarmed Saddam Hussein, to coming back to seek U.N. help when the war began going wrong on the ground.


DU: As a Korbel School of International Studies alumnus, as someone who studied with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — who first served as national security advisor — what were your initial expectations of the Bush administration?

Muñoz: My expectation was that, having [Rice] at a very high-level post, this was going to be an administration that would give a great deal of importance to foreign policy and perhaps would dedicate significant time and energy to relations with Latin America. And I wasn’t mistaken, because even before [Rice] had taken office, I went to Washington — I was deputy foreign minister at the time — and we had a private talk where we reviewed the agenda of U.S.-Latin America relations. I was very encouraged by what I heard.

Indeed, the Bush administration began to pay a great deal of attention to foreign policy and to Latin America. In fact, the first Bush trip abroad was to Mexico, breaking the long tradition that the first trip outside the U.S. by an American president was to Canada. And I felt that President Bush had a sympathy toward Latin America — and Mexico in particular. We began hearing about democracy promotion and free trade.

All of that changed, of course, after 9/11 — 9/11 was a watershed in policy. Basically, foreign policy began to be increasingly conditioned by security policy. The United States received the solidarity of the world … and we all accompanied the U.S. in the war against the Taliban. But when it turned into an obsession against Iraq, the problems began. In short, I wasn’t disappointed at the beginning, but history is history, and I think 9/11 conditioned this administration and U.S. foreign policy from then on.


DU: Of course, 9/11 has a special significance in Chilean history as well.

Muñoz: Yes. I have just finished writing another book, which is called A Dictator’s Shadow: Life Under Augusto Pinochet (Basic Books, 2008), which is my political memoir, focused on the Pinochet dictatorship and its legacy. It begins precisely on our 9/11-9/11/73, the coup d’état that overthrew a constitutionally and democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, not without U.S. help. … And, by the way, I tell a lot of my stories about DU in that book. But that’s another story.


DU: We’ve had any number of war chronicles from generals, journalists and the like. But yours is one of the first books from an international and diplomatic perspective. It reminds us that diplomacy isn’t the “quaint” activity that early proponents of the war once held it to be.

Muñoz: Diplomacy is hard and, at times, bitter work. This book is a reminder that even a superpower like the United States needs friends and that military means are never sufficient when confronting a crisis like Iraq, or many of the challenges and threats that the world faces today … they cannot be solved by one country alone, no matter how powerful.

When we talk about going to war, it is better to go along with friends and to do it through legitimate means. Otherwise, it will turn into a solitary war. That’s the difference between the Iraq war and the gulf war in 1991, when President George H.W. Bush decided that in order to confront the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, he had to go to the Security Council and get an endorsement for the use of force. In fact, he raised a lot of allied troops and financial support for that war. That was a success story, unlike the present war, because this one was carried out outside the legality of the United Nations charter.


DU: In your book, you describe a February 2003 call from Rice regarding the draft of a Security Council resolution authorizing force against Iraq. She asked for your support and said, “Heraldo, I hope you can help us and discuss this with President Lagos.” But then she said, “We will go with, or if needed, without the U.N. Security Council.” Given the climate at the time — given, say, Bush’s “you’re either with us or against us” remarks after 9/11 — what did you think about this call?

Muñoz: I thought that war was going to break out, that it was inevitable. And I told that to my president, who, by the way, was phoned by President Bush the next day and was told more or less the same thing that I had heard from [Rice]. We thought that invading Iraq was a huge mistake.

Chile was not adamantly against the use of force, by the way, because if it had been demonstrated that there were weapons of mass destruction, if we had given more time to set strict benchmarks and tasks that Hussein had to respond to, we would have gone along. But that wasn’t provided. Why go to war simply because it was alleged that there were weapons of mass destruction?

… The Security Council was very polarized at the time. And Chile, along with other countries, tried to build bridges. We came up with ideas on how to avoid the use of force, how to put the pressure on Saddam Hussein through intrusive inspections. In the end, we even prepared a draft resolution, Chile did, along with five other countries — the ‘undecided six’ they called us — and when it was perceived that this could somehow frustrate the U.S. drive to war, well it became impossible to go ahead with the resolution. … Those of us who were attempting to build bridges and be helpful were stigmatized as troublemakers.


DU: What might have happened if the U.S. had been willing to give U.N. weapons inspectors the additional three weeks of time called for in Chile’s draft resolution?

Muñoz: Perhaps after that [the Security Council] would have been more willing to contemplate the argument of the use of force. Of course, there were no weapons of mass destruction, but the onus would have been on us, because the U.S. and the U.K. could have said, “OK, we waited — we had all the inspections that you wanted. Now accompany us, help us with your vote.” In the end, possibly the French would have vetoed anyhow. So it’s all a hypothetical. But at that moment, we made an honest effort to avoid war; that was our main preoccupation.


DU: You talk about the U.N. bashing that occurred before the war. But after the invasion, the U.N. was criticized from a different front.

Muñoz: That’s right. … There were those who said the U.N. was irrelevant because it did not accompany the U.S. in the war, and others, from a different perspective, who were saying: What good is the U.N. if it didn’t stop a coalition of the willing led by the United States from invading another country — with no reasons, with no hard evidence, illegally?

It was a tough moment for the U.N. up until the war began going wrong on the ground. Then the U.N. was seen as part of the solution and not as part of the problem. We sent [U.N. envoy] Sérgio Vieira de Mello, who died along with 21 staff members, and [U.N. special envoy] Lakhdar Brahimi picked up a negotiation that was going nowhere [because] … the main Iraqi players did not want to talk to the United States. They wanted to talk to the U.N. We sent Brahimi to try to do a deal for an interim Iraqi government, and he did. … And later, for the first time in Iraq’s history, democratic elections were held in January 2005, and that was thanks to United Nations work.

So I witnessed two diametrically different moments: I saw President Bush saying the U.N. is irrelevant, it has not lived up to its responsibility, and then I saw in 2005 the president thanking the United Nations and saying that the U.N. had been fundamental in that historic election and requesting continued U.N. help in Iraq.


DU: You write that many U.N. members worried about assuming any role in Iraq. They feared the U.N. was being set up as a scapegoat should things not go well.

Muñoz: I recall many colleagues saying “… we’ll have no influence, and we will pay all of the costs if things go wrong, with none of the capacity to give direction to the process.” But then others — myself included — argued: Do we have any other choice? If the U.N. is asked to collaborate, to enable shifting of sovereignty back to the Iraqis, to try to politically normalize the country, to contribute stability and avoid a civil war, to reduce death and continued bloodshed, are we going to say we’re not going to contribute?

… But it was very much of a Catch 22 situation, because we were going to be criticized even if we succeeded — as some did because they felt we were supposedly legitimizing the invasion. In the end, we succeeded through our contribution because neighboring countries and the international community recognized the new Iraqi authority.


DU: Toward the end of the book you note that “even tactical multilateralism in the line of American exceptionalism is much better than unilateralism.” What did you mean?

Muñoz: I think the challenge for the United States is to re-evaluate multilateralism and the United Nations. In this Iraq war story, in the end the United States went back to the U.N. But the question is how much trust to place in the U.N., how much to put your bets on multilateralism to confront complex foreign policy problems.

I don’t think that any country will place its foreign policy in the hands of an international organization. Thinking about it, I don’t believe that Chile would, and we’re a relatively small country. A superpower will never surrender its foreign policy to an international organization; that would be naive. One has to accept the fact that there will be many moments in which any administration, Democrat or Republican, will probably not rely on the United Nations to tackle some issues, but it is better to have that tactical multilateralism, where you pick and choose what issues you carry on through the U.N. and which you leave outside, than to have no multilateralism at all. Americans should also remember that the creation of the United Nations was a U.S. idea, so a more rigorous multilateralism would be highly desirable.


DU: What lesson would you like the next U.S. president to take from this book?

Muñoz: That is an impossible question for an ambassador because I cannot involve myself in the internal affairs of other countries. But what I would say is that whoever the next president is, I would hope for a more decisive involvement in the United Nations. We must realize that the United Nations does not lead. It is member states that exercise leadership. And we need leadership to address all the challenges that we have ahead of us. I can’t visualize any possible way to tackle all those issues — from terrorism to global warming to the food crisis — without U.S. leadership. The rest of the world needs an engaged United States of America. … Otherwise the United Nations will linger on but it will not achieve what it set out to do: to ensure a world of peace, security, development and with respect for human rights.


DU: Here we are, more than five years after the start of the war. From your perspective, what have we gained?

Muñoz: The main gains have been lessons about errors not to repeat … There are wars of necessity, where, as a last resort and in exceptional circumstances, a country will need to defend itself unilaterally before an imminent and present threat. But this was not a war of necessity. This was a war of choice. The costs, both human and material, have been enormous and the consequences, I am afraid, will last through the years.

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