Many who opposed the war in Iraq now demand that the country be placed under international administration. They believe the UN can give the country what it did not have under Saddam Hussein and still lacks today - a legitimate government. Turning to the UN expresses the liberal faith that the world is evolving towards a form of global governance. It also accords with fashionable ideas of globalisation according to which the power of sovereign states is steadily waning.
Yet the UN would not be able to pacify and rebuild Iraq, and it should keep a safe distance from the ugly guerrilla war that is brewing there. The last thing the world needs is another misguided and ineffectual exercise in liberal imperialism. The lesson of the disastrous adventure in Iraq is just the opposite: the old-fashioned principle of state sovereignty must be reaffirmed as the basis of peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic world.
Rather than turning to the UN, we should be looking to democratic politics in the US and Britain. The blowback of war in Iraq will mount over the coming months. Almost certainly, casualties among the invaders will increase significantly. At the same time, the deception that accompanied the war from its inception will come home to roost. The Bush administration is likely to be weakened and Tony Blair's position may become untenable.
It is easy to be carried away by the ongoing saga of the dodgy dossier and the role of the BBC, and impossible not to be moved by the death of David Kelly. However, by focusing on these sordid and tragic events, we risk missing the bigger picture. The Iraq war could not have been sold to the public without extensive disinformation. In the US, it was sold by propagating the belief that Saddam was somehow involved with al-Qaeda in the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. There was never a jot of evidence for this link. Al-Qaeda's brand of theocratic anarchism is light years away from Saddam's militant secularism, and captured al-Qaeda operatives have testified that Osama Bin Laden rejected any co-operation with the Iraqi regime. But the hawks in the Bush administration did not see the absence of any solid information connecting al-Qaeda with Saddam as a reason for thinking that none existed. It was viewed as a defect in the available intelligence. As Greg Thielmann, a former official at the US State Department, recently observed, the hawks in the administration had a "faith-based" approach to intelligence. Their attitude was: "We know the answers. Give us the intelligence to support those answers."
In Britain, the war was sold by invoking the threat posed by Saddam's supposed weapons of mass destruction. But the architects of the war in Washington have always seen the WMD issue as peripheral, and now dismiss it as irrelevant. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Paul Wolfowitz, the US deputy defence secretary, reported that he had settled on the WMD issue as the main justification for the war "for bureaucratic reasons", given that it was the one reason everyone could agree on. Speaking recently to reporters aboard an air force jet returning to Washington after a tour of Iraq, Wolfowitz went further, describing WMDs as a "historical issue" with which he was not concerned.
Blair may have persuaded himself that the Bush administration's claims about Iraq's weapons were well founded, and it is not inconceivable that they contained some truth. But they were never more than a pretext for war. Neither Britain nor the US was ever at risk from Saddam. As Wolfowitz acknowledged in the Vanity Fair interview, the administration's geopolitical objectives had to do with facilitating America's withdrawal from Saudi Arabia. This required toppling Saddam and securing US control of Iraqi oil. More broadly, for many of those who engineered the war, it was a means of fomenting a "democratic revolution" throughout the Middle East, as a result of which the balance of power in the region would shift towards the US and its allies.
The true strategic goals of the war in Iraq are hardly secret. Yet they were not the objectives cited by Bush and Blair when they defended the decision to attack Iraq. This is the crucial fact about the war - and the reason it is sure to rebound badly on Bush and even more so on Blair. It was fought for reasons that were never stated. As a result, it has never had democratic legitimacy.
If Bush and Blair deceived the public about the reasons for going to war, they deceived themselves about its impact on Iraq. There was never the remotest possibility that the invading forces would be accepted as liberators. The US and Britain were instrumental in enforcing a brutal blockade on the country. The policy may have been justified by the lack of any better alternative, but Iraqis saw it as punishing them for the sins of their ruler. In any case, why should Iraqis welcome the invasion and occupation of their country? It is a question that will become more, not less, urgent once Saddam is killed. The Americans are staking everything on their strategy of decapitation: once the Ba'athist state has been beheaded, they believe, resistance will scatter and fade away. They overlook the possibility that attacks on the occupying forces are mostly the work of Islamists, not remnants of the Ba'athist regime. If this is so, Saddam's death will not stem these attacks. On the contrary, by removing one big reason for tolerating the US presence, it is likely to draw more of the population into armed resistance.
The war in Iraq has not ended but merely moved into a new phase. A brief and decisive encounter of armies is being followed by something more like the intractable, unconventional warfare practised by al-Qaeda. The groups that are attacking the occupying forces in Iraq are very unlikely to be acting at the behest of any directing authority. If they are co-ordinated at all, it is by their reactions to the news media. Following the worldwide security crackdown after 11 September 2001, al-Qaeda seems to have renewed itself as a loose network of affinity groups united principally by a common way of thinking. Islamist resistance in Iraq may be developing in a similar way, in which case the country is in for a long period of dirty, guerrilla war.
The deteriorating situation in Iraq is a predictable result of a war that was ill-conceived from the start. To turn to the UN for salvation is just another exercise in wishful thinking. Set aside the fact that to seek help from that quarter, the US would have to swallow its pride. The Bush administration may already be sufficiently intimidated by the quandary it has got itself into for such a humbling reversal of attitudes to be imaginable. The difficulty comes more from the appalling task the UN would have to take on in Iraq. As is clear from Afghanistan, policing a collapsed state is a dangerous and potentially interminable business. In the case of Iraq, the risk is that UN forces would be seen as proxies for the US army of occupation. It is hard to imagine a more daunting set of circumstances for peacekeepers. Why should the French, the Russians or the rest of the international community that opposed the war take on the thankless task of cleaning up the mess the Americans have made? Throughout the Middle East, it is not UN involvement that is being demanded, but American withdrawal.
The idea that the UN can rectify the mistakes of a great power is clearly an illusion, but it is of a piece with a larger illusion about the possibilities of global governance. Ever since the end of the cold war, opinion-formers have been infatuated with the idea that power is ebbing away from sovereign states. Globalisation is forcing a continuous transfer of the functions of governance to transnational institutions, they tell us, and the world of sovereign states belongs in the past. Like many other fashionable delusions, this belief is based on extrapolating from a short and untypical period in history - the dozen years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001 - into the indefinite future. During that time, many academics and politicians came to believe that we are moving into a post-Westphalian world. Misreading the relative peace of that unquiet interregnum for a stable condition, and viewing history as a progressive movement towards a universal civilisation, they look forward to a time when the anarchy of sovereign states has given way to a form of global governance.
There are many blind spots in this credulous vision, not least its view of the UN as an embryonic version of world government. In reality, like the League of Nations, the UN is a forum created and sustained by sovereign states and liable to be abandoned by them when it stands in the way of the pursuit of their interests. Far from moving into a post-Westphalian world, we have entered one in which sovereign states are reclaiming their powers. This is most obviously true of the most powerful among them. The US has signed off from a number of treaties. It is adamantly opposed to its citizens becoming subject to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. It cannot be long before it thumbs its nose at the World Trade Organisation. What we are witnessing here are not the teething troubles of a post-Westphalian world. They are the beginnings of a new era of state sovereignty.
On the left, the revival of the sovereign state will be seen as an unmitigated disaster. Among bien-pensants economists - besotted with the vision of a worldwide free market - it will be greeted with shock and horror. No one should doubt that this is a development fraught with dangers. But it brings with it one crucial benefit: political decisions are returned to a level at which they can be subject to democratic accountability.
The power of transnational institutions is not subject to any kind of democratic control. In practice, it is almost always used to further the interests of the strongest states. Throughout the 1990s, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were little more than instruments whereby the US imposed a self-serving economic orthodoxy on weak and developing states. Now that its economy is in serious trouble, the US has lost interest in the niceties of free trade and the balanced budget. It will certainly not allow itself to be dictated to by any of the transnational organisations it supported so vociferously in the recent past.
Conventional wisdom will view the revival of state sovereignty as a recipe for a war of all against all, but it is nothing so apocalyptic. It is simply a return to a more diverse international environment of a kind that was accepted as normal in the past. It was only with the rise of secular religions such as communism and neoliberalism in the 20th century that it came to be widely believed that all human beings should live under the same institutions.
At the start of the 21st century, our most urgent need is not to revisit these discredited utopias. It is to devise means whereby regimes that will always be different can achieve some kind of modus vivendi. The UN will have a pivotal role in this task, but it will be the modest one of framing minimal terms of peaceful coexistence among sovereign states.
For Blair, the war in Iraq is a test case of a new world based on curbing state sovereignty (always excepting that of the US). He has made it clear that Iraq is not a one-off affair, but the application of a new doctrine of international relations. "Rogue states" are to be destroyed, and a version of liberal democracy promoted universally. It is a vision that clearly appeals to Blair's Messianic tendencies, but it leaves out a crucial fact. The states that are engaged in fighting this holy war for democracy are themselves democracies.
However imperfect they may be, the US and Britain remain countries whose leaders can be peacefully removed by their citizens. President Bush is likely to be weakened as the casualties mount in a war that many Americans have never supported. Even so, still riding high on the moral authority conferred on him by the 11 September 2001 attacks, Bush may be proof against the most damaging fallout from the war. Blair is considerably more vulnerable. When he took Britain into this war, his supporters claimed he would emerge from it strengthened. As could be foreseen, it has damaged him irreparably.
A fatal air of unreality hangs over Blair's entire programme. His campaign to reform public services is a laughing stock. The idea that he can persuade voters of the need to enter the single currency is even more ludicrous. Granted a run of luck, Blair may struggle on for a while, but his government will be a lame duck; one more shock and he will be gone. The new world order is on a collision course with political reality. The war in Iraq was never going to bring freedom to that unhappy country, but it may yet show that democracy is alive in Britain.
John Gray is the author of Al-Qaeda and What it Means to Be Modern, published by Faber & Faber