Emerging from their meeting in Belfast the day before US forces announced Baghdad had fallen, George W. Bush and Tony Blair insisted that the United Nations would play a “vital role” in rebuilding Iraq. But from the lack of specifics in their statement it was clear that once again Bush was toying with his staunchest transatlantic supporter, who is under pressure from British voters to reconcile with Europe. Bush allowed that the UN might be enlisted in humanitarian efforts, but when reporters asked for details, he bridled, “Evidently there’s some skepticism here in Europe about whether or not I mean what I say. Saddam Hussein clearly knows I mean what I say.”

Bush left little doubt that the United States intends to run the show. Despite infighting between State and the Pentagon, it appears that Washington will install its own Pentagon-branded reconstruction and humanitarian aid coordinator, Gen. Jay Garner (retired), a walking conflict of interest, under Gen. Tommy Franks as US proconsul (see Geoffrey Gray). And the Pentagon has also groomed Ahmad Chalabi, the shady banker and long expatriated leader of the Iraqi National Congress, to run an interim government that would succeed a military authority.

The UN is more capable than a US military government of dispensing aid, the need for which becomes daily more urgent. Even before the war Iraq had the highest malnutrition rate in the Middle East, and civilian and military casualties are flooding understaffed Iraqi hospitals. Private humanitarian groups will be indispensable, but they are reluctant to work under the US military, an association that could endanger their workers. Only the UN will be able to attract donations from member nations. As the (illegal) occupier of their country, the United States has the primary responsibility under international law to provide for the Iraqi people’s health and welfare, but rather than bearing the cost it would prefer a collections box with a UN logo.

Also, the UN would be a more legitimate governing power in Iraq than either a US proconsul or a handpicked government; a UN security force could better deal with the growing breakdown of law and order than a military government, which is likely to ignite smoldering anger in the Arab world. A US-occupied Iraq could become a target for attacks and guerrilla actions by Arab fighters; resentment against Washington could eclipse democracy on the Middle Eastern agenda, and anti-US fury could recruit hundreds of terrorists determined to avenge the Arab world’s humiliation in Iraq. Furthermore, a unilateral occupation will cost untold billions, becoming a drag on the US economy. Finally, only UN inspectors, who should be returned to Iraq immediately, will be able to credibly identify hidden stocks of chemical or biological weapons, the ostensible reason for the US invasion.

As Germany, France and Russia planned to meet this weekend to press for a central UN role, French President Jacques Chirac noted, “We are no longer in an era where one or two countries can control the fate of another country. Therefore the political, economic, humanitarian and administrative reconstruction of Iraq is a matter for the United Nations and for it alone.” Also a number of smaller countries in the UN have been pressing for a General Assembly meeting to deal with the situation in Iraq.

Now that the United States bears responsibility for Iraq, it must not act unilaterally. For the sake of the Iraqi people and our future relations with the Arab world, Washington must return to the United Nations. Only then will America be able to re-earn the world’s trust and reverse the ever deepening cycle of hatred.