The recent helicopter tragedy and all the other indications of a long and costly occupation in Iraq put new pressure on the Bush administration to find a way out of that bedeviled land.

The dilemma is compounded by the one indisputable consideration: Our exit must be honorable. We cannot cut and run without drowning our national pride in our tears for what we will have done to Iraq and the inescapable damage to our international leadership and reputation.

Our answer might well be found in the very place where our misadventure began -- in the United Nations.

We all know too well (it has become a part of the Iraq catechism) that President Bush, in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, sought help in his determination to rid the world of the threat he saw in Saddam Hussein and what he was convinced was Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction.

He made a good case for that effort, but unfortunately ended his plea by diminishing instead of supporting -- or even exalting -- the United Nations' importance in international peacekeeping. He said it didn't really matter what the United Nations did because the United States was prepared to act alone.

The insulting snub was not overlooked when the Security Council rejected his request for aid and left us to our calamitous unilateral action.

It is time now, in our interest and the world's interest, for us to return in action as well as spirit to the United Nations. It will be a long but proud journey to restore our preferred image as world leaders ready to dedicate our great military machine to the preservation of world peace and the United Nations' mightiest supporter.

Our duel with the United Nations has left that body considerably weakened due to the example of a world power that, instead of putting its faith in the organization, has circumvented it.

We could regain our prestige and help the peaceful freedom of all the world's people if we now throw our strength into rebuilding the strength of the United Nations and restoring the hope on which it was founded -- the hope that it could indeed prevent the next world war, which, with nuclear weaponry, might well be humankind's last gasp.

This is the grand opportunity for us to lead the much-needed effort to restore the prestige and potential effectiveness of the United Nations. In an effort to compromise the selfish requirements of the major powers, the United Nations' founding charter wrote in too many limits to its authority.

A few of these: The General Assembly lacks an equitable, weighted voting system and therefore can make only recommendations, not enforceable law. The charter provides no independent sources of funding that would allow consistent achievement of its mission. The Security Council, while charged with "the primary responsibility for peace and security," stands paralyzed in the face of any conflict in which one of its five permanent members wields the veto. And, despite charter provisions for an effective U.N. standing peacekeeping capacity and national standby forces, the United Nations must still scramble -- begging and borrowing -- to assemble even the most rudimentary peacekeeping force.

If the United States put its heart and its expertise into correcting these and other lesser problems and increasing adequate international financing, it would endow the United Nations with the independence and strength it needs.

It is no wonder that our former allies and the body of the U.N. membership have turned down our request for immediate help in Iraq. Why should they contribute money and military forces to a clearly disastrous situation that appears hopeless? Particularly if we, as the occupying power, have indicated no intention of fully sharing the management of Iraq's recovery -- to which, it would seem, heavy contributors would be entitled.

However, if we showed the magnanimity to put our faith first in a revived and greatly strengthened United Nations, we finally would have put the horse before the cart. It might well be a long way around our Iraq dilemma -- but it is far better than no route out of Iraq and apparently no map at hand to find one.


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(c) 2003 Walter Cronkite

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