DON'T EXPECT President Bush to look or sound like a man with his hat in his hand when he addresses the United Nations this morning. Don't expect him to apologize, either, for the way he disdained - and in fact misled - the United Nations in the months leading up to the war in Iraq. And don't expect him to make much headway.
The big speech to the General Assembly is all about reasserting the White House position on Iraq: that the world body should step up to its responsibility and give its blessing and support to the American occupation. The president will also talk about AIDS and nuclear proliferation, but uppermost in everyone's mind will be a mental comparison between what he says today - and how he says it - and what he said a year ago, when in the same forum he also called the United Nations to account over Iraq, even as he unconvincingly declared that war was still avoidable, if only Saddam Hussein would give in on weapons of mass destruction.
No. Mr. Bush is not likely to win new friends to the American cause as he presents his case to the assembled nations of the world. But all of this is little more than a prelude to the real action, which will take place this week behind the scenes.
Between now and Thursday, President Bush is expected to meet individually with Jacques Chirac of France, Gerhard Schroeder of Germany, Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India. Then he and Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, will convene at Camp David for two days of private talks on Friday and Saturday.
Mr. Bush may hope to win them all over, or he may hope to divide and conquer his skeptical allies, but in either case these next five days will do more to determine the success or failure of America's intervention in Iraq than any other similar period. And that includes the days of fighting that led to Mr. Hussein's ouster, because the outcome then was barely in doubt. Right now, in contrast, the future of Iraq hangs very much in the balance.
Mr. Bush knows he needs a U.N. imprimatur on the continuing occupation of Iraq, because without one it's going to be very difficult to envision a successful withdrawal of American troops down the line. He won't beg, and he shouldn't need to, because he has a very powerful and simple argument on his side: If the world doesn't do something about Iraq now, the world will regret it.
But the world's a difficult place, as the with-me-or-against-me president may one day come to realize. Mr. Chirac wants a quick timetable for a handover of power to an Iraqi government; Mr. Bush does not. A sensible course would be to get an Iraqi government up and running as soon as it's reasonably possible to do so and to let it assume power as it becomes ready to wield it. But what's sensible and what's politically possible are not always the same. It would be unfortunate to see progress in Iraq founder on the question of a timetable; it could happen.