Ever since the Iraq war ended four months ago, the United States has acted a bit like Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, trying to persuade other nations to help it paint the Iraqi fence.
It has found few takers. Instead the US has been forced into a race for legitimacy among the Iraqi people, even as it tries to win United Nations' endorsement and help for its mission.
For every big bomb planted by terrorists - first targeting the Jordanian Embassy, then the UN office, and last week, a Shiite holy place and leader - the US has had to move faster to make a countermove that shows it can create a model democracy in the Arab and Islamic world.
That vision of a democratic Iraq could become a lonely and expensive burden for the Bush administration, and for Americans, who have a mixed historical record in creating and sustaining democracy in foreign lands. Yet few nations have the idealism or strength to take on such a task, or the urgent self-interest to destroy terrorism's roots in the Middle East with the sunshine of democracy.
The latest countermove comes today, when the US-appointed governing council for Iraq will swear in a cabinet of 24 government ministers. This nascent and unelected government, divided equitably among Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, will rule under some US guidance until a constitution is approved and elections held - perhaps up to two years from now.
The next big step for the US and the new ministers is move quickly to set up Iraqi security forces that can reduce crime and prevent more bombings, a step that will help deflect Iraqi anger away from the Americans.
Having more Iraqi police on the beat, as well as a functioning government with growing independence from US authorities, will show that Iraqis are willing and able to share in the American vision for their country. Perhaps then more countries, maybe even the UN, will join in.
And Iraq is only the start. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice says the US must make a "generational commitment" to bring pluralistic governments to the Middle East.
It's lonely being a superpower, and especially one with an urgent vision to spread democracy as one way to stamp out terrorism. As the US runs this race for legitimacy in Iraq, nations other than the US (and its wobbly ally Britain) must decide if they also want a reformed Middle East - or one that's a terrorist breeding ground.