PARIS -- Despite the optimism at the Pentagon about Iraqi operations, Tuesday's speeches at the United Nations General Assembly may actually prove to be a step toward an American retreat from Baghdad, possibly before the end of this year.
The speeches failed to advance the Iraq problem beyond where it was before the Assembly met. If in the Security Council, the Bush administration refuses even a symbolic transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis (as demanded by Old Europe), and refuses to cede any political authority over the occupation to the UN, Washington will continue to enjoy exclusive ownership of this problem - with all of its risks and its current $87 billion-plus cost to the American taxpayer.
It's curious that Washington seems never to have considered welcoming the UN and the Europeans into Iraq to take responsibility for nation-building, claimed glorious military victory for itself and pulled troops out as rapidly as possible.
The military in Baghdad is now planning how to get out of the present mess. What's being discussed is a military retreat into several well-defended bases well away from the capital and Iraq's other cities. These undoubtedly are mostly the same bases Washington had in mind before the war as permanent U.S. installations.
The idea is to hand over Iraq's security to newly recruited Iraqi police and militias, as well as to whatever multinational force the United States can put together.
While the plan looks interesting on paper, if it works at all, it would end by handing control of Iraq to forces incompatible with the idea of a shining new Middle Eastern democracy in Iraq that the Bush administration has for the past year been promising. It might look a lot like an old-fashioned authoritarian Arab state, run by generals, tribal leaders and policemen.
There is serious reason to ask whether restoring Iraqi sovereignty under UN control, as the French ask, could work - even if it were politically imaginable for President George W. Bush in an election year. The two attacks already made on the UN are the work of people investing in exploitable chaos, not reconstruction. Nonetheless, the Bush administration's unwillingness to spread around responsibility for the crisis and for reconstruction is curious. Something makes the president want to stay.
The cynic might say that Washington has to control the Governing Council and the political process until a government emerges with sufficient international legitimacy to privatize Iraq's oil industry, to the benefit of U.S. investors.
As things stand, who wants to take over Iraq? The UN is not likely to resume major operations without security guarantees that the United States occupation simply cannot currently provide.
The Red Cross, the development agencies and the nongovernmental organizations have the same problem. Paul Bremer, the Bush administration's chief administrator in Iraq, might give them the same razor-wired and air-conditioned fortresses his staff members occupy, but that would only confirm that the civilian agencies are not neutral, merely appendages of the occupation. Potential contributors to a multinational force know that it's one thing to send peacekeepers and quite another to send soldiers to fight guerrillas and terrorism under U.S. command. To have a multilateral army, Bremer and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have to guarantee its security; but the reason they need the army is to create the security.
Washington now plans to put Iraqis in charge of security as fast as this can be done. They want Iraqi police and Iraqi military. The occupation authority has been recruiting police and militia, and hiring private security forces.
It does not take much imagination to think what job Bremer has in mind for Iraq's former defense minister, Sultan Hashim Ahmad, former No. 27 in the famous "wanted" deck of cards. He accepted a courteous invitation last week to turn himself in. I would think him the leading candidate to rebuild Saddam's army under U.S. command.
Saddam's foreign intelligence service people are already being signed up. Bremer's people have already gone to the tribes to renew their traditional arrangement of subsidy in exchange for oil pipeline security.
All this may be the practical course. But it's not what was promised, either to Iraqis or to the Americans who are paying for it all.
Copyright © 2003 the International Herald Tribune