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September 5, 2003 --

THE Bush administra tion's sudden decision to go to the U.N. Secu rity Coun cil for a new Iraq resolution looks like bad news for America and for the prospects of a democratic Iraq.

The resolution's specific contents — and even whether or not it gets passed — can't change that. (Indeed, yesterday's Franco-German démarche suggests that we're simply in for another pointless Security Council pummeling.)

The issue isn't the further internationalization of the occupation. (Thousands of foreign troops are already patrolling vast stretches of Iraq.) It is symbolism and timing.

The hasty turn to the United Nations smells of panic, unwarranted panic at that, and even worse, the foolish subordination of Iraq policy to electoral concerns.

The administration may genuinely believe it isn't engaged in a humiliating climbdown, but that is inevitably going to be the perception, here and abroad.

The practical point of the move, to the extent it has any, is to obtain the U.N. fig leaf that will make politically possible the deployment of troops from India, Pakistan and Turkey.

But even if it were worth eating some humble pie to bring in three divisions from those countries — and that's debatable, given the horrifyingly brutal counter-insurgency records of all three militaries — the timing of the pie-eating could hardly be more dangerous.

To go crawling back to the United Nations, tail between our legs, only a week after the Najaf bombing, tells the world — and, more importantly, the people of Iraq — that the bombings and attacks on U.S. troops have succeeded. It signals that America is, if not exactly on the run, severely rattled.

No, the Iraqi occupation has not yet turned into a 1993 Mogadishu or 1983 Beirut — where America humiliated itself by fleeing after bloody setbacks, and thereby encouraged the Khadafys, Milosevics and bin Ladens of the world to believe that it was a paper tiger.

But to any Iraqi who was thinking of taking the risk of joining a U.S.-organized militia, or the new police force or turning in a Ba'athist guerilla, the message of the U.S. reversal is clear enough: The Americans are irresolute and can't be trusted to hang in for the long term.

Or, as the Syrian dictator Hafez Assad said at the time of the Beirut disaster, "The Americans are short of breath."

Furthermore, panic about Iraq is simply not warranted. Not only is the situation there not deteriorating at an alarming rate, most of the country is in fact remarkably stable and peaceful.

Unfortunately, the parts where the occupation is working don't get visited by the media — or, for that matter, by L. Paul Bremer.

How many people know that the 1st Marine Division, which administered the vast South Central region (until handing it over to the Polish-led multinational division Wednesday), suffered not a single combat death since April 12? (This remarkable fact has gone entirely unreported despite the Marines' repeated attempts to get foreign journalists to make the two-hour journey from Baghdad to Babylon.)

Then there's the little-known success story of the North (even outside Iraqi Kurdistan, which continues to be a beacon of stability and democratic hope). In Mosul and the area around it, the 101st Airborne has done a superb job (as reported by The New York Times' Michael Gordon, one of the few reporters willing to do more than file carping stories from the capital) of winning hearts and minds and getting the country back to work.

This is not to say mistakes aren't still being made. The Coalition Provisional Authority is apparently almost as slow-moving and bureaucratic as a U.N. administration would be, and it continues, almost suicidally, to fumble the task of communicating with the Iraqi people.

And new troops are still often being sent to Iraq without the kind of crowd-control, peacekeeping and policing training that was standard for GIs deployed to Kosovo and Bosnia. They're also not getting the right equipment, including suffient numbers of armored Humvees.

Still, overall conditions don't warrant the handing over of either military or even civilian tasks to the United Nations. Especially as there is little reason to assume that the U.N. will do a better job of administration, constitution-framing or even humanitarian relief.

After all, the last time the United Nations tried to set up a democracy in a devastated land — in Cambodia — the end result was the authoritarian Hun Sen regime. Iraqis neither want nor deserve such a government, but they rightly fear it could be the product of greater U.N. involvement in their country.

Indeed, Kofi Annan's secretariat is actively consulting neighboring Arab states and pushing for their involvement in Iraqi political reconstruction, despite those countries' opposition to the Bush vision of a viable democratic state in Iraq, and even to the removal of Saddam Hussein.

For that matter, it would be naive to expect any of the powers outside the present coalition to be on board when it comes to building a democratic Iraq.

France, on whom the passage of a U.N. resolution depends, wants to see America fail out of spite. And Arab leaders are terrified of U.S. success in Iraq: The emergence of the Governing Council, more representative than any governing body in the entire region (except Israel), is worrying enough.

Iraqis, Americans and their allies have already paid in blood for the hope of establishing a stable, democratic Iraq whose existence could revolutionize the Middle East.

Achieving this hope is certain to be a difficult task, but to go back on it now would be a tragic waste. Worse still, the apparent admission of failure could have disastrous consequences in the Middle East and around the world.

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