I was in the Rose Garden of the White House the other day to hear George Bush and Tony Blair, and afterwards listened to a British newspaper reporter using a mobile to report to his news desk. "The only new thing I got out of it was that Bush called Blair 'a stand-up kinda guy'," said the reporter rather morosely. What the poor fellow had missed was an apparently big change in US policy towards Iraq unfolding before his eyes: a notion that the Bush administration now desperately needs help from the UN. "We welcome the proposals presented by UN Special Envoy Brahimi," said the president. "He's identified a way forward." The composition of an interim government of Iraq after 30 June "is going to be decided by Mr Brahimi".
Well, how things change. Just 13 months ago, after the rejection of US policies on Iraq by the Security Council, the UN was openly derided by practically every American. But now Kofi Annan's man in Baghdad will be responsible for choosing the post-30 June government. Lakhdar Brahimi is by no means a US puppet, either. "Sending the tanks hauling into a place like this [Fallujah] is not the right thing to do, and I think the Americans know that extremely well," Brahimi said soon after Bush had spoken of his faith in him. "When you surround a city, you bomb the city, when people cannot go to hospital, what name do you have for that?" Such US action, he added, would only "alienate more people".
There are several ways of looking at Bush's apparent damascene conversion towards the UN, which has not received anything like the attention it deserves. The first, which I tend to favour, is that the administration's Iraq policy is in tatters. Bush has said unequivocally that the Iraqi people will have complete sovereignty after 30 June, but has since backtracked to call it "limited sovereignty". He and his advisers are trying to set up the UN and Brahimi as fall guys for the mayhem there will doubtless be in Iraq before and after 30 June. If this theory is correct, US troops will be largely confined to barracks during this period so they cannot be shot at or bombed - and so that the US death toll will magically slow down. Iraqis will be left to kill each other and - insomuch as US public opinion cares - UN figures such as Brahimi and the secretary general will be blamed.
The second possibility is that Bush is not using the UN in so cynical a way, but genuinely believes its help is needed. Revealingly, the administration has appointed its heavyweight ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, to be ambassador in Baghdad after 30 June. It is being frantically leaked that the US will seek a new Security Council resolution rallying international support by mid-May. US officials are calling it a "mega-resolution" because its effect on Iraq will be so huge.
But tell all this to the governments of Russia, China, Pakistan and other members of the Security Council, which want a real end to US rule after 30 June, and you realise that the UN will pass only a very watered-down resolution. A US-sponsored resolution would recognise the end of the "formal" US occupation of Iraq, whatever that means (Pentagon sources say troops will still be in Iraq to 2006 at least). It would bestow the UN's blessing on the new political arrangements and - a bit of a sticking point, this - it would authorise the continuation in Iraq of the "coalition presence". (The US and UK argue that they have the legal right to keep troops in Iraq from previous UN resolutions.)
But irrespective of what UN resolutions are passed, the truth is that the administration has firmly passed the buck of choosing a new interim government to Brahimi. He will choose a prime minister, a president for ceremonial purposes, two vice-presidents and 25 cabinet officers.
I suppose I am cynical because there is no way the US is going to hand over real power in Iraq to the UN or to anybody else; the stakes are too high. As the neoconservative hawk Paul Wolfowitz puts it: "The security of Iraq . . . will be part of a multinational force under US command, including Iraqi forces." Two influential Republican senators, Dick Lugar and John McCain, are meanwhile openly saying that the US needs to send more troops to Iraq.
Their pessimism sums up the reality of what is going on in Iraq, and many people in Washington know it only too well. But let us go back to my first theory. I am sorry if this sounds conspiratorial, but I believe that Bush administration policy on Iraq is now driven totally by the presidential elections in November. The aim is to bottle up Iraq as an issue until then, putting the blame on the UN for things when they go wrong but not "cutting and running", in what has become the vogue lingo for a major American withdrawal. I do not like to impute unworthy motives to people, but I fear that is how it is. It's realpolitik, I suppose, and Bush has a stand-up kinda guy right behind him.