A Not-so-Irrelevant UN

In the month since his Iraq victory, President Bush has decided to be magnanimous toward a United Nations he once warned of being irrelevant if it didn't approve the war.

The victory, of course, didn't bring spoils as much as toils for the United States and Britain in their occupation of a chaotic, post-Hussein Iraq. So this week, the two powers asked the Security Council to vote on a resolution that essentially would approve the occupation's legitimacy while offering the UN a very limited role in running Iraq.

The diplomatic trade-offs in the resolution, worked out by Secretary of State Colin Powell, attempt to patch up relations between the US and its main prewar opponents: France, Russia, and Germany.

Such big-power ties help form the source of the UN's legitimacy. And with all sides making compromises to pass a postwar resolution, the balance of power between Washington and the UN can at least be partially restored. The US can be less isolated and unilateral, while the UN will once again try to be a global player in resolving conflicts.

The US needed the Security Council to drop the international sanctions against Iraq and to phase out the UN oil-for-food program. Even though those measures are now useless, they remain legally binding and provide some leverage for France and Russia in negotiating the resolution.

What those nations gained was a role for a UN "special representative" to facilitate "a process leading to an internationally recognized, representative government." While that still leaves the US firmly in control, the UN would at least be at the table in shaping postwar Iraq.

The coalition is offering a similarly vague solution to channel Iraq's oil money into a "development fund" held by Iraq's central bank but audited by an international panel. This takes a step toward allowing repayment to Russia of billions of dollars it loaned or invested in Iraq.

Still unresolved is whether UN weapons inspectors will be allowed back into Iraq. If the US fails to find biological or chemical weapons there, that issue of inspectors may be moot. If the US claims to find them, UN inspectors can verify that claim.

By now returning to the UN, Bush has helped revive an institution he may well need in the future as the war on terrorism progresses.

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