UNITED NATIONS -- On the plaza of the United Nations sits a large new sculpture of a pistol with its barrel twisted into a knot so that it can't fire. The intended symbolism seems clear -- peace. But does it not also, perhaps unintentionally, signify something less glistening -- helplessness in the face of aggression? The Iraq crisis has raised this vexing question to the top of the U.N. agenda.

Among both supporters and skeptics, the world body is commonly identified with "peace," a condition juxtaposed to "war." This is the U.N. culture. To the extent that everyone embraces peace as an end, this is fine. But to the extent that the means to that end may -- and in certain circumstances must -- include war, it is not. The U.N. was created on the foundation of a world war and tested in the forge of a regional war, in Korea. The invocation of force is central not only to its history but also to fulfillment of its abiding purpose of peace.

Modern-day liberals tend to invest the organization with transcendent importance as the prime keeper of the peace in the post-Cold War universalist era. But they hesitate to grant it the military tools that may be vital to performance of the hardest part of its job. In this spirit, some would essentially avert their gaze from the unpleasantness of Saddam Hussein and sit down at the sumptuous diplomatic feast (an Arab-Israeli settlement, etc.) that supposedly lies on the far side of a Gulf solution.

We must watch out for mirages. If peace is really important, and if the principle of collective action as represented in the U.N. is important, then again in certain circumstances we should be more ready to show the U.N.'s guns, not less. It is no service to internationalism to think that the real reason to enmesh the United States in the U.N.'s approaches to Iraq is to rule out a military option. That suggests that George Bush, who after all lives by the rules of a late 20th century democratic community, is more dangerous than the despot and aggressor Saddam Hussein. It risks converting a dream of world order into a reality of world disorder.

For their part, conservatives have spent the past 20 years protesting the United States' isolation at the U.N., and now that almost everybody stands with us, they are protesting the crowd. Our success in drawing others into an unprecedentedly collective response to Iraq they see not as welcome evidence of creative diplomacy but as a thoughtless and costly error that limits American freedom of action.

In fact, the U.N. Charter is turning out to be a more spacious and flexible document than many people had imagined. Opportunities to gain valuable international political, legal and moral approval for successive steps to keep the peace in the Gulf, up to and including force, seem to me to lie well within the range of American policy as it is now being conducted.

Published anxieties that any U.N. military operations would be parked under a restrictive U.N. military staff committee appear exaggerated. The Soviets, who have so far provided no forces, are poorly placed to command through a committee the forces of others -- a committee they now describe as merely advising the Security Council. One might add that the Americans, who are not known to be conducting any diplomatic probing, are poorly placed to criticize others who -- within the framework of U.N. resolutions -- are looking for different diplomatic ways to skin the Gulf cat.

Operating at a foreign country's invitation and on its soil and in the company of several dozen partners separately summoned, Washington cannot expect to enjoy the license it would have in deploying only its own forces from its own territory. In independence of command as in other ways, Iraq would be no Panama. But if we keep a respectful eye on the sensibilities of other countries that are no less intent than we to restore Kuwait and calm the Gulf, there should be no need to growl excessively about an enfeebling U.N. cabal.

If anyone's role has been trimmed on Iraq, it is a part of the U.N. traditionally referred to -- too broadly -- as "the U.N.": the secretariat. Although its chief, the secretary general, is now routinely invited to make available his good offices, he has in fact been somewhat eclipsed by the newly unbound Security Council. It now issues its own stern negotiating guidelines (U.N. resolutions on Iraq), and its members mount their own diplomatic and military initiatives. You could guess that not everyone in the secretariat is thrilled, but the Security Council is being tested as a forum where like-minded states can concert their policies for what it takes for peace.