President Bush wants it both ways: He says the US had enough authority from past UN Security Council resolutions to launch a war in Iraq but, having failed to win one last resolution, the US can now limit the United Nation's involvement in postwar Iraq to just aid and some reconstruction.
Of course, what Mr. Bush really means is that he wants to keep France and Russia as far away from Iraq as possible and to prevent those two veto-wielding powers from using the UN for another purpose: reining in America's global influence and defining how it should deal with terrorist states.
So as talks muddle along over the UN's role, Bush is helped by a hard fact on the ground: The US military is in Baghdad, perhaps for two to three years. And unless GIs are besieged by suicide attacks, riots, and organized noncooperation by Iraqis, or Congress decides it can't bear the costs of shoring up Iraq, the US will take the lead in picking Iraqis who will establish a democratic government.
The immediate task isn't deciding the UN's role but quickly finding civilians in Iraq who are 1) largely untainted by the now-defunct regime; 2) democrats at heart; and 3) natural leaders acceptable to a broad range of Iraqis.
British officers have already started that process in Basra, holding a majlis, or conference, of tribal, community, and religious leaders who can choose representatives to form an interim Iraqi authority.
A big question is whether the UN Security Council will ever endorse such selections. At some point, however, it can't ignore these additional facts on the ground.