Undermining the UN: Who's at the Steering Wheel?

WHILE speeches are being made and ceremonies held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, the organization itself is tottering toward ineffectiveness. The saddest part of this sad story is that nobody is paying much attention, perhaps because nobody has the stomach to do much about it.

Briefly stated, the trouble is that the UN is meekly accepting one humiliation after another in Bosnia. This cannot go on very long before it results in loss of respect, prestige, and authority. The UN, created to preserve world peace, will have been neutered.

It would not be right to put the blame for this dismal state of affairs on the UN itself. The UN does not exist independently of its members. It is what its members make it, particularly those who are permanent members of the Security Council: the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China. They were made permanent members in the first place because it was felt that they were the countries best able to keep the peace. In Bosnia, they have flunked.

It can be reasonably argued that what used to be Yugoslavia is of no large global strategic importance and that therefore the UN did not need to do anything when the Yugoslav breakup began. The central point here is that once the UN did intervene, its future credibility became dependent on effective action. Otherwise, nobody will pay attention to future resolutions in possibly more critical situations.

Having intervened in Yugoslavia, the UN did just about everything wrong. The peacekeeping force was not big enough. It was not well enough armed. It had inappropriate rules of engagement. The countries that contributed troops to the force (primarily Britain and France) deserve full marks, but they sent their troops into an impossible situation.

The relationship between the UN and NATO evolved into a jerry-built military structure with a Rube Goldberg chain of command. NATO has lots of power, especially air power, that the UN lacks; but the UN is reluctant to authorize its use because the UN ground troops are too few and too lightly armed.

This is where the humiliation began. UN troops were held hostage against NATO airstrikes, chained to potential bombing targets. It is reprehensible to put troops in this position and then not support them.

The role of the United States in all of this has been unfortunate at best, potentially tragic at worst. When the Yugoslav breakup started, the Bush administration, preoccupied with the Persian Gulf War, ignored the problem. The Clinton administration lent air and naval support to NATO but resisted contributing to UN peacekeeping because this would have involved American ground troops.

Now that Republicans have taken over Congress, the US role is even more difficult. These particular Republicans have brought with them a kind of neoisolationism that the party had largely purged itself of during the days of Vandenberg, Eisenhower, and even Nixon. The anti-UN atmosphere on Capitol Hill these days is more reminiscent of the era following World War I when a Republican Senate kept the US out of the League of Nations.

For the UN, it's time to put up or shut up. But UN members don't want to put up, and shutting up may end the organization as a viable force.

What the UN needs now is leadership of the kind Truman gave it in Korea and Bush in the Persian Gulf. The world still looks to the US for such leadership. But the US is handicapped by a president who doesn't know what he wants to do and a Congress determined to keep him from doing it anyway.

The issue is not US interests, or the lack of them, in Bosnia. The issue is the US interest in preserving credibility of United Nations peacekeeping.

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