CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — President Bush did the right thing last week when he decided to ask the United Nations to play a stronger part in helping govern Iraq. That course change required courage and wisdom. But Mr. Bush needs to go further still if he wants to find a workable balance in Iraq between the US, the rest of the world, and the Iraqis themselves.
It's commonly agreed that the Iraqis must exercise sustainable self-governance as soon as possible. This will be a complex transformation. Iraqis have only a thin and distant experience of constitutional government to draw upon. They are reeling from 40 years of authoritarian rule. The big question now is: Who will make and enforce the rules for rebuilding a stable order?
It's also agreed that to do this, Iraqis need to undergo a three-step progression toward self-rule. They need to draw up a new, democratic constitution; enact some democratic procedure for adopting it; and hold their first democratic elections. But who will be in charge of these three crucial steps? Who will be the ultimate arbiter for who can and who cannot run in the election? Who will devise and enforce a countrywide security plan for the transitional period?
These are not merely technical questions. As all who have undergone transitions from repression to democracy know, each of them is also intensely political.
Many Americans inside and outside the military have vowed that when US troops are deployed on multilateral missions overseas they should never come under the command of a non-US general. That is one issue, and it's possible that as Secretary of State Colin Powell continues discussions with other nations about the new UN resolution on Iraq, they can all find a way to deal with it.
But there's a larger issue, too. At the end of the day, every military commander reports to a political leadership. To whom will the commander of the new, mixed, US-UN force in Iraq be responsible? Right now, both the US commander on the ground and the civilian head of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) report to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. But once there's a new power-sharing agreement with the UN, will the people in these two jobs report to Mr. Rumsfeld or to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan?
Let's be frank. Many key members of the UN Security Council would find it hard to lend their troops, the UN's name, and the enormous legitimacy that the UN enjoys around the world to a venture headed by Rumsfeld, a man who has gratuitously denigrated many friendly countries in public.
It would be easier to reach the needed agreement if Rumsfeld were no longer secretary of Defense. But there are other reasons, too, that Bush should consider letting Rumsfeld go. It was, after all, his decisionmaking at key points in the past two years that led the US into the present mess in Iraq.
There are other steps Bush can take to build good working relations with various powers around the world. In his address last Sunday, he could have added two significant paragraphs to help reframe the debate inside the US, while showing allies that he is attentive to their concerns. He can and should still speak out on these issues.
First, Bush said not a word about the current flare-up of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. This violence is of intense concern to many partners around the world who, along with the US, are sponsoring the almost moribund road map. Last May, Bush promised his commitment to following the road map. But then, on Aug. 8, the Israeli government spectacularly broke the truce by ordering the extra-judicial killing of two Palestinian militants in Nablus, and both sides have suffered ever since. Bush's reference to this situation in his Sunday speech? Not a word.
If he wants other powers to help out in Iraq, he needs to show them through word and deed that he is truly committed to building a sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Second, an important grace note that Bush missed in his speech, but should strike sometime soon: to express publicly, in front of the US people and the world, his appreciation for the work that UN leader Sergio Vieira de Mello did in Iraq before he and 18 co-workers were killed in the car-bombing there last month. Bush had met Mr. Vieira de Mello, and reportedly liked him. The Brazilian diplomat did a lot, quietly, to help the CPA in Iraq when it formed the first vulnerable "Governing Council" of native Iraqis.
Perhaps, as Bush asks other nations as well as US taxpayers to start contributing big money for Iraq's reconstruction, he should be the one to suggest that fund be named the "Sergio Vieira de Mello Memorial Fund."
• Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.