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The world is holding its collective breath as the U.N. Security Council moves toward a crucial vote on a U.S.-British draft resolution laying the groundwork for war against Iraq. At the moment, the outcome of the vote is a matter of conjecture. Yet the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush appears determined to order military action even if the resolution fails to pass.

President Bush is convinced that Iraq’s disarmament, which is demanded by many nations in the international community, is not enough. He believes that “regime change” in Baghdad — ousting President Saddam Hussein from power — is essential for liberating the Iraqi people from oppression and for establishing democracy not only in Iraq but in the rest of the Middle East as well.

However, this “grand design” is stirring controversy around the world. It is the subject of serious debate, particularly in the United States and the Middle East. It is likely that staunch opposition by France, Germany and Russia to the draft resolution reflects in part their mistrust of a U.S.-led crusade for post-Hussein democratic reform.

A war with Iraq will succeed militarily whether it is approved by the Security Council or not. But a war without U.N. backing will make a critical difference in Mr. Bush’s grand design, for he will need all the international support he can muster to carry out a postwar reconstruction program.

It is essential, therefore, that the United Nations maintain its authority. The division within the Security Council is unfortunate, but the lack of unanimity should not be taken as a sign of weakness in U.N. peacekeeping capability. Still, a paralyzed U.N. could give additional impetus to American unilateralism.

If the U.S. must go to war unilaterally, then it must try to secure solid international support in the postwar stages of rebuilding Iraq. The Security Council must unite in these peaceful efforts, instead of leaving the initiative to America. The U.N. as a whole must involve itself actively in the peaceful reconstruction of Iraq so that it can set an example for similar reforms elsewhere in the Middle East.

President Bush, in a foreign policy speech late last month at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, outlined his postwar vision for Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. A regime change in Iraq, he said, will demonstrate the “power of freedom” to change the entire Middle East. He apparently believed that an ouster of Mr. Hussein would not only foster democracy throughout the region — from Morocco to Bahrain — but also encourage the Palestinians to elect a new leader, paving the way for peace with Israel.

This Bush vision, it should be noted, reflects the thinking of so-called neoconservatives who favor the hardline policy of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. As expected, the plan has received, at best, a cool reception from Arab and European states. Indeed, it is unlikely that Arab nations will accept active and extensive intervention by a foreign power that backs Israel, which they view as primarily responsible for the Mideast conflict.

A U.S. State Department project now in the works envisages a new Iraqi administration comprising 17 working groups, including those in charge of economic, fiscal and foreign affairs, education, and local autonomy. Iraqis returning from exile abroad would also join the new regime. A retired U.S. general would take charge of immediate postwar operations, such as rudimentary reconstruction and humanitarian assistance. An interim administration, excluding Iraq’s antigovernment elements, would be headed by a U.S. civilian until a constitutional assembly was elected.

However, it is difficult to think that such a U.S.-dominated project will be embraced by the Iraqi people. A former Iraqi foreign minister in exile has said they will reject any administration imposed by a foreign power and that they would prefer, if anything, an Afghan-style administration backed by the U.N. A U.S. newspaper suggests an internationally recognized civilian administration headed by a non-American.

If the U.S. goes its own way in disregard of international opinion, the postwar program could backfire by generating more anger and hatred across the Muslim world. Iraq could sink into chaos while the Israeli-Palestinian dispute escalates. Islamic radicalism could gain strength around the globe. The threat of terrorism could increase, not decrease. It could happen that democracy would be doomed as a result — in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. The best way to prevent all of this is for the U.S. and its hawkish allies to become a little more patient in order to get the international community peacefully with them.

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