THE UNITED NATIONS has done the Bush administration and the people of Iraq a tremendous service by endorsing the view that there's no way the country could stage a legitimate election by June 30. That seems to have settled the argument, and it takes a little of the heat off. But now what?
Already fallen by the wayside is Washington's plan for a system of caucuses to select an interim government. Another idea, to let the good Iraqis (Kurds and Shiite Muslims), but not the bad Iraqis (Sunnis), vote, should fall by the wayside as well. Americans and members of the current handpicked Iraqi Governing Council are floating a plan to simply hand over power to the council, possibly in expanded form, on the June 30 deadline; hardly anyone else seems to like that idea. How about an Afghan-style loya jirga, a grand assembly? Iraqis are already sniffing that they're not Afghans. They also don't have an obvious choice for a leader on the order of Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai.
A few points are worth noting here:
The June 30 deadline was set by the American occupiers last fall. L. Paul Bremer III, who runs the show in Baghdad, says the deadline will not be changed. A view widespread among Iraqis is that it has more to do with American presidential politics than with what's good for Iraq. Of course, if the occupation were extended people would immediately start asking angrily if the Americans were ever going to get out, but that doesn't mean it's such a bad idea. It would, though, be an admission by Washington that the Iraq-and-democracy-in-the-Middle-East project wasn't going so well.
The Americans aren't getting out, in any case. A giant embassy will be in place, plus a troop strength of at least 100,000 that could now extend into 2007, according to Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Incidentally, that means the 2008 presidential election race will be gathering steam, and a large part of the U.S. Army might still be in Iraq.)
Doing something ham-handed that pits Iraqis against each other between now and June might invite accusations of illegitimacy against whatever government is installed and risks open warfare. Doing something adroitly that doesn't pit Iraqis against each other will require considerable finesse.
Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary-general, says that Iraqis themselves must devise plans for a transitional government that could organize elections by the end of the year. He's right and he's wrong. Iraqis must believe that a government hasn't been imposed on them; that's why Washington has to keep a respectful distance, even as it maintains a powerful presence. But someone has to help the disparate and wary elements of Iraq sort things out. The United Nations is the obvious choice.