The war has already started: Anglo-American commandos and airplanes are now operating inside Iraq, laying the groundwork for the conventional forces that will follow soon. As President Bush made clear in his press conference last Thursday, coalition forces will act against Saddam Hussein, with or without the UN's approval.
The Security Council does not seem to have got the message. On Friday, it reconvened for another endless round of palaver over the pace of weapons inspections, presided over by the resplendently-robed foreign minister of Guinea. No doubt his countrymen would have been mighty proud of Francois Fall's star turn on the world stage. If only they had seen it.
Unfortunately, The New York Times reports from Guinea's capital, Conakry, that "electricity is available only every fourth day, and then only between midnight and 6am". Not that CNN would be on even if there were power for TV sets. General-turned-president Lansana Conte, who has ruled with an iron fist since 1984, strictly regulates the flow of information to his subjects.
This is what the UN "process" comes down to: a country that keeps its own people in the dark, literally and figuratively, is asked to shed light on what America and Britain should do with regard to Iraq. Gaining the imprimatur of Guinea - and of such other global giants as Angola, Chile and Syria - is supposed to confer "international legitimacy" on the actions of two of the oldest and most successful democracies in the world.
That, at least, is the logic of those, such as France, Russia and China, who demand another UN resolution before Saddam Hussein is finally punished for failing to comply with the previous 17. Their sincerity in suggesting that the world body must be the final arbiter of all military actions is pretty suspect, however. France did not seek UN approval when it sent 3,000 soldiers into Ivory Coast. Russia did not seek sanction for its bulldozing of Chechnya, nor China for its brutalisation of Tibet. In private, the leaders of these nations would chortle at the notion of giving Guinea a veto over where they can send their own forces - yet they expect America to do just that.
From the standpoint of the rest of the world, there is a realpolitik logic to this: they think that the UN and other international institutions can be instruments of containing US power. "I like very much the metaphor of Gulliver, of ensnarling the giant," Jorge Castenada, Mexico's former foreign minister, explained in November. "Tying it up, with nails, with thread, with 20,000 nets that bog it down: these nets being norms, principles, resolutions, agreements, and bilateral, regional and international covenants."
But what does Gulliver get in return for letting himself be hogtied by a bunch of Lilliputians? Those who argue in favour of the UN route suggest that America derives concrete benefits: it reassures the rest of the world that it is not a rogue nation, and thereby gains the support of allies for things it does not want to do, such as peacekeeping.
Nice theory, but the examples of Bosnia and Kosovo show that getting UN support for postwar reconstruction is hardly contingent on getting UN clearance beforehand. In the case of Iraq, the passage of Resolution 1441 four months ago may have strengthened America's hand. But the US and British insistence on coming back for another resolution has only allowed France and its allies to pursue their real agenda, which is containing America, not Iraq.
Not only is the US not getting any credit for going to the UN, it cannot get the UN to tackle a truly difficult situation where America does not want to go it alone. When it comes to North Korea's nuclear activities, those committed multilateralists France, China and Russia think the problem should be solved by America unilaterally. Thanks, guys.
The New York Times editorialists, along with many others, fret that if the US and Britain depose Saddam without another UN resolution, "it could lead to a serious, possibly fatal, breakdown in the system of collective security that was fashioned in the waning days of World War II". What system? The UN has punished aggressors on exactly three occasions: 1950 (North Korea), 1991 (Iraq), and 2001 (Afghanistan). All three times, UN resolutions were the thinnest of figleafs for actions that America would have taken anyway.
The UN isn't entirely useless. A quick perusal of its website shows that it has a lot to keep it busy. "UN agency to launch a new sports and environment initiative for youth," reads the headline of one press release. Another trumpets: "UN banks offer cut-rate loans for solar power development in India." While the UN pursues those weighty projects, the hard work of making the world a bit safer for democracy will be performed, as it always has been, and always will be, by America, Britain and their allies.
The writer is Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power".