Failed, useless, dubious, impotent, pernicious, morally exhausted . . .
by Bruce S. Thornton
Every crisis is an opportunity, a time when the fissures and cracks of received wisdom and worn-out habits of thought are exposed. The years since the terrorist attacks on 9/11 have been such a time for the United States. Decades of intellectual corruption, moral flabbiness, and blithe indifference to the reality of a dangerous, unpredictable world all culminated on 9/11. Yet despite the gruesome severity of that lesson, the same bad habits persist. Nothing demonstrates this truth more clearly than the unwillingness of many Americans, including the current administration, to accept once and for all that the United Nations has outlived whatever use it may have had as an institution for defusing crises and managing conflict.
The U.N.’s failures just in the last twenty years are legion — in Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia, and currently in Sudan, hundreds of thousands have been brutalized, mutilated, raped, and slaughtered, often right under the noses of U.N. forces and observers. This failure to prevent violence and keep the peace reflects the false assumption that created the United Nations. Like its earlier incarnation, the League of Nations, the U.N. was the fruit of an old Enlightenment dream: that negotiation, diplomacy, and rational discussion could manage crises and avoid the use of force in settling conflict. Such global parliaments had been the stuff of numerous utopias over the years, a dream particularly attractive for those horrified by the nationalist-inspired carnage of modern warfare and enamored of the idea that humans could progress beyond war and violence, which were considered primitive vestiges of a less civilized world rather than eternal realities of human nature.
But that dream is itself based on a questionable assumption: that rational negotiation, discussion, and appeals to self-interest and material benefits can trump force. In fact, rational discussion and negotiation work only when everybody at the table respects them, bargains in good faith, and sincerely desires peaceful coexistence. Unfortunately, history teaches us that for those who respect only force and see it as an instrument for realizing their ambitions, or for those driven by irrational motives like fear or the lust for domination, such discussion, diplomacy, and negotiation will be mere tactics for furthering those strategic goals. Finally, negotiated settlements and resolutions are only as good as the credible threat of force backing them. Lacking that credible threat, and cursed with these false assumptions about human nature and the self-interested behavior of states, the U.N. could only degenerate into a politicized body in which every state sought to advance its own interests.
The sorry history of the U.N. demonstrates precisely this truism. When it hasn’t been a cash-cow for venal international bureaucrats, a venue for the machinations of corrupt autocracies, an anti-Semitic and anti-American megaphone, or a tool for furthering the totalitarian designs of Communist nations, the U.N. has been good only for issuing high-minded resolutions that it can’t or won’t back up, all the while corrupt regimes pursue their oppressive ends. Nothing shows this corrupt hypocrisy more than the U.N.’s obsessive demonization of tiny Israel. Because of this obsession, the U.N.’s Commission on Human Rights forbids Israel’s membership but currently includes notorious violators of human rights such as Cuba, China, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe. And remember, despite rescinding, without comment or apology, its despicable Resolution 3379 equating Zionism with racism, that lie resurfaced at a U.N. conference in Durban in 2001, and periodically is repeated by Arab nations like Syria. Indeed, the U.N.’s hostility to Israel — almost 30% of its resolutions have been devoted to that tiny beleaguered state — at a time when oppression and slaughter have drenched the world in blood, demonstrates more than anything its moral bankruptcy and uselessness.
The U.N.’s failure as a force for order and justice in the world was clearly manifest in its indulgence of Saddam Hussein and its paralysis in dealing with his obvious ambitions to acquire weapons of mass destruction. For more than a decade, Hussein violated UN resolution after U.N. resolution, sixteen in all. He demonstrated his scorn and contempt for the U.N. and its ideals, booting out the weapons inspectors after years of harassing and deceiving them. And he corrupted the U.N.’s Food-for-Oil program, which attempted to ease the suffering of the Iraqi people caused by Hussein’s intransigence and brutal disregard for his own people, whom he watched suffer and starve as he spent billions on vulgar palaces, gaudy mosques, weapons, and bribes to U.N. officials.
You would think, then, that the U.N. would have been eager and grateful for action that would show its resolutions really mean something and are to be ignored only at great cost, particularly since the United States would be carrying most of the military and financial load. Instead, the U.N. workedagainst such a demonstration, even though its own credibility was at stake. The U.N.’s alternative? Pass yet another toothless resolution giving a failed inspection process more time, ignoring the obvious question why Hussein, having ignored several previous resolutions in the past, would have respected any new ones.
The U.N., in short, did everything in its power to help Hussein create a face-saving illusion of “compliance.” It was content to continue being Hussein’s chump, subjected to his WMD bait-and-switch, in the end perhaps thrown a few weapons crumbs — yet never allowed anywhere near the weapons and facilities Hussein had been secretly developing, as we knew after 1995 from the testimony of his son-in-law Hussein Kamel. Meanwhile the veto-bearing members of the Security Council such as Russia and France could continue doing multi-billion dollar business with Hussein’s regime, and Saddam could continue his quest for weapons of mass destruction. The President’s tortuous attempts to work through the U.N. accomplished nothing except to give Hussein several months in which to destroy or transport to other countries his WMD’s and facilities before the war began in March 2003.
Given how useless the U.N. actually is, then, why do we continue to hear the ritualistic calls for working within U.N. “mandates” and “resolutions,” for building “coalitions” of dubious “allies” sanctioned by the U.N., and for avoiding the horror of “unilateralism”? One answer can be found in the assumption frequently lurking beneath such demands: that the United States and its power are untrustworthy and prone to abuse, that America’s record of racist, colonialist, and imperialist interventions and adventures abroad demands that it be carefully watched by international monitors and limited by various international agreements and protocols.
Consider the following statement made by California Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein in the months before the war against Hussein began: “I’m one that has been very concerned about a pre-emptive unilateral attack in terms of America’s perceived ‘imperialist’ culture that this administration has developed.” That is, our foreign policy should be determined by the delusional perceptions of other countries rather than by our own principles or interests. What the senator seemed not to realize is that this melodramatic fable of American “imperialist” wickedness, apart from being a lie, is itself a useful tool for serving the interests not just of our enemies, but of our so-called friends and allies, and so will not be discarded no matter what we do or which party is in power.
This brings us to another pernicious function of the U.N. — allowing weaker states, many of them dysfunctional and tyrannical, to interfere with and hamstring America’s actions in order to serve various agendas that have nothing to do with America’s interests. A militarily weak Europe, for example, chafing over its lost prestige and envious of the success of a nation created by European riff-raff, finds the U.N. a perfect instrument for thwarting US interests and advancing European ones. As with NATO, in the U.N. European pretensions to moral superiority can be paraded while American military muscle does all the heavy lifting, as happened when American bombers stopped the slaughter in Bosnia that took place on Europe’s doorstep.
Again, the lead-up to the war in Iraq made manifest the duplicity of Security Council members like Russia and France. Quite simply, it was not in the economic or political interests of the French to remove Hussein from power, no matter how brutal or dangerous he was. Thus the French, led by their foppish foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, undermined the United States at every turn, using the threat of its Security Council veto not just to hinder the United States, but to compromise the Security Council’s own Resolution 1441, which tepidly authorized the use of force to compel Hussein to live up to his agreements and previous U.N. resolutions.
What all this behavior demonstrates is that the U.N. does not function on principle but rather on politics and the interests of the members. This truth renders even more disgusting the assumption that America needs some international body to watch over US behavior, as though foreigners are more principled than Americans. But America does not need to be monitored by unelected European functionaries or United Nations bureaucrats. The greatest danger to the world today does not come from American power, the use of which has historically been remarkably restrained. In actual fact, America’s power represents the best hope the world has for creating stable political, social, and economic orders that will benefit the greatest number of people and liberate them from oppression by thugs and gangs disguised as governments. Grant all the charges against America ever leveled by every Chomskyean lunatic, and American power still has done much more good in the world than ill.
What makes America unique is not the perfection of its people, who are subject to the same flaws and mistakes as all humans. Rather, it is America’s political principles and institutions — a government that balances and checks power and interests, civilian control of the military, a vibrant civic society, and a tradition of free and open critical inquiry. These and the good sense of America’s citizens will provide the best restraint on the arrogance and abuse of power, certainly one better than the self-interested machinations of unelected U.N. delegates and representatives accountable to no one other than the regimes that send them to New York.
So instead of seeking the approval and sanction of a weak and morally exhausted U.N., we should be confident that our own political virtues and institutions will rightly guide America in the pursuit of our principles, security, and interests. The real issue we should be discussing, then, is not John Bolton’s suitability for being the U.S. representative to the U.N., but the UN’s suitability for advancing the interests of the United States.