In Baghdad this week, one Mohammed Mohsen Zubaidi, an Iraqi businessman with ties to the Iraqi National Congress, has shown up claiming to be the city’s governor. He’s set up in the Palestine Hotel, where he meets with local leaders, offers to solve their problems and announces plans to get the city’s services back on their feet. However, the head of the INC, Ahmad Chalabi, has declined to support Zubaidi’s pretensions, and in a recent confrontation between the two and their armed guards, there was accidental gunfire. Chalabi makes no claim to be governor, but he, too, has shown up in Baghdad and started meeting with local leaders, in preparation for an interim government that the United States wants to set up. The United States itself has appeared in the person of Gen. Jay Garner, the intended temporary administrator of all Iraq. He, too, has brought a governor of Baghdad with him: one Barbara Bodine, former Ambassador to Yemen. Just now, it’s hard to say which of them, if any, will actually wind up running Baghdad.

Among these pretenders to power, the Garner team has one notable qualification: It represents the occupying power that has just overthrown the former government. The problem has been that the United States has so far declined to act in the classic manner of the conqueror: It has offered no substitute government. Rather, it has come in the guise of a liberator. The normal thing for a conqueror to do once it has routed the indigenous forces is to declare martial law and start giving orders. That is what the United States did on the two occasions most often cited as precedents for the Iraq war–the conquest and occupation of Japan and Germany after the Second World War. The United States made no claim that it was “liberating” those peoples. It conquered them and dictated the forms of their political future, which they, happily, came to accept and approve over time.

The nature of a conqueror’s rule has always been well understood. The citizens of the subject population obey because otherwise they can be put to death, just as the soldiers of their defeated army were. The seventeenth-century political philosopher and archrealist Thomas Hobbes had a name for this kind of obedience. Putting to himself the question, “Despotical dominion, how attained?” he answered that it depended on the “consent of the vanquished.” He cited the Roman example–highly pertinent in these days of American imperial ambition. The Romans achieved conquest “not by the victory but by the consent of the vanquished.” He explained that “it is not…the victory that giveth the right of dominion over the vanquished but his own covenant. Nor is he obliged because he is conquered, that is to say, beaten, and taken, or put to flight; but because he cometh in, and submitteth to the victor.” The act that symbolized this consent was the surrender–as in the ceremony on the battleship Missouri when General Umezu signed a surrender agreement with General MacArthur.

This second transaction, the one that turns military victory into conquest, is the one that has not occurred in Iraq. The United States has not demanded–and the Iraqis have not given–any kind of consent. They cometh not in; they submitteth not. Except in the Kurdish north, where Garner was recently received joyously, Iraqis have been telling reporters that while they indeed hated the regime of Saddam Hussein they also do not want to be governed by the United States. Almost with one voice, they say, “No to Saddam, No to Occupation.” Or, more disturbingly, “No to America, No to Secular State, Yes to Islamic State.”

On the surface, there might appear to be a coincidence of interest here: The Iraqis don’t want the United States in Iraq and the United States doesn’t want to be there. The rub, of course, is that the United States is not in fact ready to let the Iraqis themselves determine their own future and has published thirteen principles that must guide the formation of Iraq’s new government. They include democracy, federalism, respect for women and rejection of “political violence.” In the immediate future, the physical reconstruction of the smashed, looted country is a necessity. Many observers judge that these tasks will require many years and the expenditure of many tens of billions of dollars.

Yankee, go home! Yankee, stay! Which will it be? Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s formulation is that the United States will stay as long as is necessary “and not a day longer.” But how long is that to be? Six months? Two years? Five years? Twenty?

The question involves much more than timing. It involves fundamental decisions, so far evidently unmade, about the role of the United States not only in Iraq but in the entire Middle East, for which the United States has planned an ambitious political makeover. Questions of governance, indeed, extend far beyond that region. Most permanent members of the Security Council have made clear their conviction that the international interlocutor for any future Iraqi government, interim or permanent, should not be the United States at all, but the United Nations. Nor are the decisions of the Security Council “irrelevant” in the current situation. Although the UN has no troops on the ground in Iraq, it has formal control over Iraq’s oil revenues, now under embargo except for the purchase of permitted items, such as food. The embargo will end one way or another–but into whose hands will Iraq’s oil revenue be placed? General Garner’s? Ahmad Chalabi’s? Mohammed Mohsen Zubaidi’s?

For events are moving fast. As the outside pretenders to power were jockeying in Baghdad, Iraqis, many of them Shiite Muslims who neither had any connection with the United States nor wanted any, were setting about actually governing large swaths of Iraq, including parts of Baghdad. They were erecting roadblocks, stopping looting, restoring services. For them, as one put it, cooperation with the United States is “accursed”–the mark of the quisling. What if these groups simply go about the business of organizing their country independently of Garner, or in defiance of him? And what if, further, they choose not the sole superpower but the United Nations as their link with the world? In that case, Garner and the country he represents will face a decision: whether to withdraw or try to do what conquerors in the past have always done: impose their will on the conquered people by force.