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Reason for hope

Oregon editors say

Despite the snit factor, the United Nations may still help out in Iraq

The Oregonian

If you can dismiss the snit factor ' and maybe you can't ' one of the significant things about the debate over Iraq in the United Nations is how much the United States and its rivals agree on.

Maybe that wasn't clear in the round of speeches that President Bush, France's Jacques Chirac and Kofi Annan, U.N. secretary general, fired past one another in New York on Tuesday. But at a more substantive level, there is reason to be hopeful, as the United States laid the groundwork for another effort to involve the United Nations in Iraq. The United States wants the U.N.'s help in rebuilding Iraq and in keeping peace. And, off the podium, Chirac now says France won't stand in the way. That's real progress.

As we've mentioned, there's still a certain number of out-of-joint noses regarding the United States' conduct leading up to the war. And, on the other side of the snit line, there's a certain amount of unhappiness about the cynicism embodied in French and German criticism of the United States.

The French and the Germans, for example, have now begun to insist on a timetable delineating how the United States will turn things over to an Iraqi state in a matter of months. President Bush has been steadfast in insisting that the process must unfold according to the needs of the Iraqis ' neither hurried nor delayed by the wishes of other parties.

— The diplomatic disagreements here aren't about personal chemistry between Chirac and Bush, but about postwar economic and political power.

One of the people who evidently knows this is Ahmad Chalabi, the former Iraqi exile whom the United States placed on Iraq's interim governing council. Chalabi issued a call Monday for the United States to cede more control more quickly to the governing council.

But the Bush administration notes correctly that ' as the president's critics are wont to point out ' the governing council wasn't elected to anything and is entitled to claim only the most temporary mandate. We suspect that if Chalabi were to get this wish, his hold on power would be more temporary than he ever imagined.

We're not even sure the European matter of months will turn out to be any different from the Bush formulation of according to the needs of the Iraqis. It's hard to imagine any U.S. interest in being involved in governing Iraq for one minute longer than necessary. But the idea of putting things on a timetable is specious. The only criterion for handing the reins back to an Iraqi government should be that a reasonable case can be made that a new, normal political system can survive.

Right now, no such case can be made.

The United Nations could help bring that moment closer by accepting the tasks of helping to write a new constitution for Iraq, helping to build civic institutions, setting up and supervising free elections ' and providing some peacekeeping troops and funding.

With that more central role, some of the debate about timetables and methods should recede. Assuming, of course that the United Nations is up to the task ' and decides to take the job.