Consider the Balkans. In proportion to their populations, three times as many troops were deployed in Kosovo as in Iraq, and in Bosnia twice as many. By Kosovo standards, there ought to be more than half a million troops in Iraq. But maintaining 180,000 British and American troops in Iraq is putting intense strain on the military manpower of both countries. There is no serious prospect of their deploying any more. Reinforcement will have to come from other countries -- and in far greater numbers than the 70 Ukrainian soldiers who flew in Sunday.
This is not impossible. India and Turkey have each said they are prepared to send considerable forces, divisions of 10,000-15,000 troops. Pakistan is also ready to contribute, and France even has some units training for a possible deployment to Iraq. But in each case these countries need the political cover and legitimacy that only a U.N. mandate can provide. And as World Bank President James Wolfensohn suggested during his recent visit to Iraq, the international financial agencies also want a U.N. mandate before they can contribute seriously to Iraq's reconstruction.
So of all the grim questions now hanging like so many vultures over Iraq, the most urgent is whether the Bush administration is prepared to swallow its pride and go back to the United Nations for a new resolution on the reconstruction of Iraq.
The price to be paid for this would be considerable, and not just in loss of American face. Any hopes of a favored role for British and American oil companies would have to be reconsidered, and France and Russia might even see the honoring of those oilfield development contracts they negotiated with Saddam's regime.
Above all, Washington would lose its current power to determine the political future of Iraq. The initial hopes that Iraq could become a prosperous pro-Western democracy, a catalyst for modernization throughout the Middle East, would become highly problematic. A political process supervised by the United Nations is likely to strengthen the hand of the Shiite majority, and may well help those Shiite religious leaders who take their cue (and their funds) from neighboring Iran. It would be hard for the United Nations to turn down the friendly offer from Iran of welfare missions and an accompanying 25,000 peacekeeping troops.
An Iraq in which the British and Americans no longer called the shots is likely to be far more welcoming -- or vulnerable -- to all sorts of Arab and Islamic "volunteers." The outcome could well be the worst of all possible worlds for the Bush administration -- an oil-rich Iraq that is closely linked to the ayatollahs of Tehran, while also proving a safe haven for al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists and militants. Such an Iraq would be the kind of regional menace that the United States and Britain went to war to prevent.
Such worst-case scenarios lurk far in the future. But any U.N.-sponsored administration would face very quickly the Catch-22 situation that now challenges the Anglo-American Coalition Provisional Authority and the Governing Council of Iraqis that it has installed. The Governing Council, which is reasonably representative of Iraq's tangled ethnic and religious mix, has a big problem of credibility and legitimacy that only elections and a constitution and its own budget are likely to solve. But such a budget requires oil revenues -- blocked by constant sabotage of the already dilapidated oil infrastructure.
As a result, the CPA is looking hard at the proposal of Kurdish leaders for an Iraqi security force, composed of their own Kurdish militia, troops loyal to Ahmed Chalabi's Iraq National Congress and the Badr brigade of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the strongly Islamic Shiite group that is backed by Iran. This could take some of the pressure off the British and U.S. troops, their morale under strain from constant guerilla attacks.
CPA chief Paul Bremer is now talking of holding Iraqi elections next year and then going home. The real problem is that the timetable of Iraq's future is becoming increasingly hostage to the timetable of the U.S. election campaign. The Bush administration understandably does not want to campaign for re-election with each week in Iraq costing a $ 1 billion and four or five body bags coming dismally home. Whatever the consequences for Iraq in calling early elections or in sharing the burden with the United Nations, the Bush administration is running out of time.