NEW YORKIf this week did not mark the 60th anniversary of the bloody British withdrawal from India, it would be easy to dismiss the latest attempt to involve the Uited Nations more deeply in Iraq as risible.
Scorn is seldom in short supply on Iraq. Why, the get-out-now brigade will ask, should a UN already battered by Baghdad and led by an unproven secretary general have any chance of easing the mayhem when the mightiest power on earth has labored in vain for four years?
Is the U.S. maneuver that led to the unanimous approval last week of a resolution giving the United Nations a central role in promoting regional and Iraqi national reconciliation not just the latest Bush administration attempt to kick failure far enough down the road for it to become somebody else's problem?
The argument is easy to make, as facile as all the cheap electoral point-scoring that makes up what passes for political debate on Iraq in an America counting the days to next year's presidential vote.
The untidy thing is that the fate of 26 million Iraqis and the fortunes of the Republican and Democratic parties do not mesh. The former is a lifelong affair, the latter often a matter of sound bites.
America has incurred a debt to Iraq, and the liability is weightier than the paper on the sub-prime mortgage market. Those in a hurry for neat resolutions in Mesopotamia might cast their minds back 60 years to the summer of 1947 when, on Aug. 15, after almost a century of direct rule, the British quit India, having drawn some hasty lines on a map.
The lines produced Pakistan. The rapid exit - independence and partition had only been approved a couple of months earlier by Parliament - produced a savage outbreak of killing and rape among millions of Hindus and Muslims attempting to disentangle entwined existences. India and Pakistan went to war over still-contested Kashmir.
I know, India is not Iraq, the world of 1947 is not that of 2007, and America's Iraqi foray amounts to a brief interlude compared to Britain's passage to India. But playing with fire still tends to produce explosions. Any U.S. withdrawal, or significant troop reduction, must be meticulously prepared.
Iraq right now involves a proxy war in which Iran wants to consolidate Shiite ascendancy, Saudi Arabia wants to ensure Sunnis have a share of power, and Turkey wants to prevent the Kurds from laying their hands on oil-rich Kirkuk, so establishing the economic basis for an independent Kurdistan.
A proxy war over the most explosive issue in the Middle East today - Persia ascendant - could easily become a direct war, absent America's offsetting influence, however costly that influence is. Which is where the UN comes in.
The resolution calls on the UN to "advise, support and assist" Iraq in "facilitating regional dialogue."
This, along with promoting political reconciliation at a time of national fissuring, will be the core task falling to the new UN envoy to Iraq, who will probably be Staffan de Mistura, a Swede with extensive Iraqi experience.
"The key factor will be getting very active regional diplomacy going, institutionalizing negotiations with neighbors, which we want to involve weekly or bi-weekly meetings," Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the UN told me. "It's hard for us to get a meeting with Iran, but this is something the UN can do."
Khalilzad, who has served as ambassador in both Afghanistan and Iraq since the 9/11 attack, identified the three critical regional powers as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and said "they all fear that an outright U.S. withdrawal could suck them into an outright war in Iraq."
That fear will provide the UN with leverage. The ambassador has received assurances from President George W. Bush that the U.S. will provide full support for the UN as it expands its role. "We are talking about a UN backed by the U.S., not replacing our presence," he said.
Skepticism, tinged with fear, is rife at the UN. The memory is still vivid of the 2003 slaying in Baghdad of many of its best and brightest, led by Sérgio Vieira de Mello of Brazil. But a U.S. drawdown, ultimately inevitable, must be based on intertwined regional and national rapprochement. The UN, if it gets leadership, is better positioned to foster that than a discredited Bush administration.
I knew de Mello in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. He liked his Black Label. He was also a man of courage with a deep sense of responsibility and the long arcs of history.