UN may need US clout to bolster peacekeeping efforts

African leaders are asking for the US to send 2,000 troops to quell unrest in Liberia.

Despite being at odds with the UN over its war with Iraq, the US may still be the best hope to permanently strengthen the UN's peacekeeping mandate around the world, analysts say.

Even after a three-year retooling process aimed at strengthening the UN's ability to effectively intervene in conflicts, unrest in Congo and Liberia have highlighted its continued weakness.

In Congo, until a French-led force showed up last month, UN peacekeepers could only shoot when shot at, leaving citizens vulnerable to attacks by rebels.

And in Liberia, civil war and a massive humanitarian crisis continue unabated as the UN looks to member-states - specifically the US - to donate cash and soldiers.

"[The US is] the largest contributor to the UN and most influential member of the Security Council; if we don't approve of something, it's not going to happen," says William Luers, president of the United Nations Association, a think tank, and former US ambassador to Venezuela and Czechoslovakia. "If the United States stood behind the UN to take action in cases like Congo, the Balkans, or in the Middle East, I have no doubt that virtually every nation in the world would follow us."

The US, many analysts suggest, is now too distracted by its "war on terror," Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to throw its weight behind other crises viewed as outside US national interest. Moreover, they say, the US resists any proposal that would have US soldiers serving under foreign control.

West African leaders meeting in Ghana this week offered to send 3,000 troops into Liberia if the US would provide 2,000 of its own. In Washington on Monday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the administration was "looking at a range of options."

He noted that US forces have trained Nigerian and other African armies for regional peacekeeping operations. "They've been well-trained," he said. "We've helped equip them, and to the extent they've been deployed I've been told they've handled themselves well."

The French are slated to leave Congo Sept. 1, so the Security Council must decide in coming weeks whether to bolster the existing UN mandate, which currently allows for 8,700 troops, but only 4,300 are currently on the ground. The mandate expires at the end of the month.

"The Security Council authorizes the mission, but if members are not forthcoming with the necessary troops and mandate, that's where the question of political will comes in," says David Wimhurst, a spokesman for the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.

The 2000 Brahimi Report, named for its chairman, the veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, was the UN's first-ever internal assessment of its peacekeeping.

Mr. Brahimi was tabbed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to raise awareness of past failures, failures with which Mr. Annan was intimately familiar as head of UN peacekeeping during crises in Rwanda and Bosnia in the 1990s.

Several Brahimi recommendations have been implemented. For example, a budget increase has allowed increased staffing and more money and personnel devoted overseas to intelligence, analysis, and planning of conflict prevention and intervention.

The UN logistics base in Brindisi, in southern Italy, has been stocked with a "strategic-equipment reserve" that would enable UN peacekeepers to deploy within 30 days for smaller missions - 90 days for more complex missions - an improvement over past mobilizations that typically took six months to get off the ground.

Meanwhile, countries like Sweden, Germany, France, and Italy now have troops specially allotted and trained for international peacekeeping. The US does not, which some suggest may be one reason why US troops are encountering difficulties in Iraq.

Still, a growing source of tension within the UN is that while the West pays for the bulk of these missions - there are currently 14 around the world, with 39,600 uniformed personnel - the burden of staffing them is left largely to the developing world.

No one should expect anything other than countries acting in their own national interest, says Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank influential with the Bush administration. "The idea that the UN embodies a greater good is a fantasy," says Pletka. "Surely Saddam Hussein was serial violator of human rights unlike any seen in 50 years, but he didn't galvanize anybody to do anything until President Bush held everybody's feet to the fire. We're always going to judge the urgency of a mission on a national basis."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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