DISTRESSED by the cost and risk of committing nearly half a million troops to the Persian Gulf, many Americans are beginning to ask whether the United States can afford any longer to play its self-appointed role as global policeman or whether a truly international force under United Nations command might be a more appropriate guarantor for the region's fragile security. Some argue that before committing US troops when Iraq first invaded Kuwait, President Bush should have gone to the UN, offering to place a limited contingent of American soldiers under UN command along with those of many other nations. Others argue that there simply wasn't time. Given the Security Council's ponderous procedures, Saddam Hussein might have swallowed half of Saudi Arabia before the first UN forces arrived.
Perhaps there wasn't time then, but there has surely been time since to reconsider. Yet there has still been no serious thinking about the nature and command authority of the forces that should remain in place from now on, both during the immediate crisis and after it is resolved. The Persian Gulf crisis throws into stark relief the inadequacies of the international community's reliance on purely national armed forces to enforce the peace. These forces are directed by leaders with interests and agendas of their own that may well run contrary to the global interest.
The UN already possesses a very modest peacekeeping capability, though no standing forces of its own. Invented in the heat of the 1956 Suez crisis by Dag Hammarskj"old, the UN's most remarkable secretary general, and Lester Pearson, then Canada's minister of external affairs, UN peace-keeping units are not heavily armored divisions, nor do they have attack aircraft or missiles at their disposal.
Introduced with the consent of all sides to a conflict, these UN peacekeepers are not intended to rebuff a full-scale military assault, still less to launch one. They are trained to be monitors and sentinels, observing and reporting threats to peace. In the 35 years since their invention, they have been placed in cease-fire zones in dozens of regions, from Cyprus to the Sinai, the Congo to the Iran-Iraq border. They usually number no more than a few thousand troops, all recruits from the armies of small nations like Canada, Sweden, and Tanzania.
But in the climate of total violence in the Persian Gulf today, such peacekeeping forces seem utterly insufficient. By its gargantuan deployment, the Bush administration has raised the stakes so high that anything less than hundreds of thousands of troops begins to seem inadequate. If, however, the object is not invasion but the defense of Saudi Arabia and the enforcement of a tight embargo, then a much more modest deployment is sufficient.
Under current circumstances, with the US-led coalition apparently intent on exercising the military option at an early date, there is virtually no chance that these forces will agree to place themselves under UN command. But if, instead, sanctions are given time to work, then a gradual transition could be arranged whereby some troops are withdrawn, others replaced, and all those who remain are deputized as UN peacekeepers.
To be placed under UN command, however, the present multinational coalition force would need to be modified. Its numbers could be reduced by at least half. The US preponderance would be replaced by a more balanced mix of 20 or more nations, with special emphasis on smaller nations without major stakes in the region. Since invasion would no longer be a goal, weapons and forces of attack would be withdrawn (including all nuclear weapons on ships and planes in the region) and those of defense strengthened.
For Americans, there are great advantages in turning this costly and hazardous task over to the UN. Under UN command, all deployment costs would be assigned on a proportional basis to every member nation, greatly reducing the grossly disproportionate burden now weighing on the long-suffering US taxpayer. If national contingents are more equally balanced, the majority of US troops can begin coming home, with as few as 10,000 to 20,000 remaining in the UN Gulf force. And with a lower US profile in the region, US citizens and possessions would be far less at risk of Iraqi terrorist attacks.
If, as President Bush declares, we are trying to shape a ``new world order'' in the crucible of the current crisis, then that order can't be made to depend disproportionately on the forces of any individual nation.
Giving the UN the job currently held by a tenuous coalition with widely divergent aims would help defuse the explosive rivalries that would surely be triggered by any offensive military action by the alliance. It would also begin laying the foundation for a standing UN peacekeeping force capable of dealing with future emergencies, both in the Gulf and beyond. So that the next time Saddam, or any other aggressor, chooses to strike, the world will finally have its own policeman to keep the peace.