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Humanitarian aid is not a military business

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The installation of a retired general to head postwar operations in Iraq demonstrates the Pentagon's ability to wrest control of humanitarian reconstruction from the United Nations and the Department of State.

But this power ought to rest with a civilian organization - such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - that practically and ethically will better serve the reconstruction effort.

The Pentagon should sacrifice the short-term benefit of control for the long-term prize of legitimacy.

Under a military-controlled relief effort, humanitarian assistance can easily become a tool of war. Hostile forces might see aid workers as easy targets and allies of the occupying force. Moreover, the neediest Iraqis may never receive assistance if their needs don't match the Pentagon's political goals. The reconstruction effort is likely to lack international legitimacy and financial support.

In Iraq, the US use of humanitarian aid as a political asset threatens the efficiency and equity of aid operations. The Pentagon, overruling the Department of State, has asserted the right to organize postwar reconstruction in Iraq. It created an Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance that will have the military imprimatur on every aspect of rebuilding - from political institutions to the food aid Iraqis receive.

Aid workers from international charities can follow along the Pentagon script or they can operate at their own considerable risk. The Pentagon has even made plans for these aid workers to wear US military-issued identification badges - something the workers see as an affront to their values as well as an unnecessary risk in a still volatile region.

The Pentagon plan poses monumental ethical and practical challenges to aid groups. The two bedrock principles of humanitarian assistance are neutrality and impartiality.

Neutrality means that organizations do not take sides in a conflict. Impartiality means that need is the only condition for determining who receives aid - not political affiliation, ethnicity, or any other criterion.

Aid organizations obviously lose their neutrality if they operate under the direction of the US military. Humanitarian aid also loses its impartiality if politics, rather than need, determines who receives aid. On the ground, that might translate to the military preventing aid workers from assisting non-liberated zones, for example.

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