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The War For The UN

by David Michael Green

With Bolton At The UN, The Pentagon's Back In Control

Here's a shocker: conservatives (I prefer the term 'regressives') are being dishonest with the American people.

This time it concerns the United Nations, and their subtle disinformation campaign aimed at debilitating, if not destroying, an institution which is important and popular even in the United States, but one which they passionately despise.

As usual, these regressives have shown themselves more masterful at marketing their falsehoods than any political figures we've seen this side of the 1930s. And so they must be, for to tell the truth about their ideas would condemn them to the garbage can where American public opinion rightly places such national disasters as massive deficits, wars of imperialism, and the privatization of Social Security.

This week, as the Senate contemplates whether to send to the United Nations one of the most hostile imaginable of these neanderthals to represent the United States, it would serve us well to step back and take a long view of the neo-conservative game concerning the UN, and the very concepts of international governance and law.

The first rule of analysis with these guys is, of course, accept nothing at face value. So, when you hear them discuss the scandals at the UN, the reform needed to address them, the expressed desire for a more effective institution, or America's difficulties there, forget it completely. These folks are just as interested in saving the UN as an effective institution as they are in saving Social Security.

The problem -- in both cases, actually -- is that when your ideas are radical and radically unpopular, you can't get what you want by going through the front door. The solution is to create or inflate 'crises,' act like you really care about the item in question (e.g., the Iraqi people, Social Security, the UN), and then jam your march-to-the-sea scorched earth plan down people's throats in the guise of a solution to the bogus crises you've just invented or hyped.

It was precisely this approach which proved highly effective in laying the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq amongst frightened and ill-informed American citizens. It may work again on Social Security, where it is currently in play. While Bush has not yet sold his plan to unravel what has been described by some as the most successful government program anywhere, ever, poll data suggest that he has now emerged triumphant from at least the first phase of his campaign, laying the groundwork for the privatization 'solution' by convincing Americans that the system is in crisis.

And this is exactly what the regressive right is doing with respect to the UN, only a bit more subtly -- the Bolton nomination notwithstanding. The truth is that neo-conservatives hate the UN, hate international law, and hate international governance of any sort. This is, above all, because they hate any limitations on American sovereignty, including the capacity to belligerently deploy U.S. military might wherever they see fit, for purposes which need satisfy only their own power-lusting criteria.

And the truth is, further, that they therefore wish to destroy the United Nations in any meaningful form, though they'd probably settle for the British monarchy model of institutional problem solving: gut it of all power, but leave the building for tourists to visit. A sort of neutron bomb of international governance.

To be sure, the UN isn't wildly popular in the United States, but it is popular enough (and its braking capacity on U.S. foreign policy blunders perhaps more so), that the neo-cons have a serious marketing problem to overcome. This can be seen in American attitudes toward the Iraq invasion, where late and tepid support of the war was conditioned, for a substantial segment of even the U.S. public, on prior UN approval. This is the neo-conservative version of hell itself.

Fortunately for the right, and unfortunately for humanity, there is the tried and true method described above to undermine the UN through the back door, a portal reserved for only the most diseased and squalid of policy ideas.

So we continue to see apoplectic outbursts of shock and anger from regressives at Kojogate (the Oil-for-Food scandal implicating Kofi Annan's son), or rape by peacekeeping forces in Africa. But somehow they are silent on the $8 billion in oil revenues that the United States has lost in Iraq, after the UN granted it control on condition of providing a full accounting for funds handled. And we hear little from them about the hundreds of thousands imperiled in Darfur. Could that be because their concern is really more about framing the UN negatively than the outrage for integrity and compassion for human rights they've expressed?

In the end, though, the biggest lie of them all is the notion that the UN has proven itself ineffective, and therefore must be 'reformed.'

To put this one over, they must first ignore all the accomplishments in non-security domains the UN has achieved over the last half-century. Whether it is food aid, environmental protection, disease control or human rights advocacy, the UN, it can safely be said, has saved lives, no doubt in the millions. But these successes cannot be acknowledged.

Next, they must also ignore even the security-related successes of the organization. To be sure, not all peacekeeping operations have worked as intended, but then what human institutions are one hundred percent effective? Would the regressive right-wingers in charge of America today agree to close down the corporation as a form of economic actor on account of Enron or WorldCom? Maybe I need to check the headlines more often, but I haven't heard them calling for an end to all corporations. Meanwhile, ask the people of Cambodia and East Timor, among many others, whether UN peacekeeping can be successful.

In any case, ironically, the biggest single reason for the failure of UN security efforts is precisely the attitudes of neo-cons like John Bolton, Dick Cheney or Richard Perle.

Which brings us directly to the biggest bit of legerdemain in this whole absurd kabuki dance. But first, a bit of background. The UN's very raison d'etre is to replace the historical scourge of war with a system of international security. That system is built around the concept of collective security: an attack on one member (e.g., Iraq on Kuwait) is to be treated as an attack on all, with a militarized response, if necessary, by all.

Collective security works great on paper, but not so well in practice, because member-states have real interests in particular events; they rarely vote in some vacuum of abstracted principle. The paradigmatic example of this, of course, was the Cold War's grand contest of international politics, which consumed about 45 of the 60 years the UN has been in existence. During this time, one could generally assume that anything the U.S. was for, the Soviets would oppose. And, likewise, America almost always returned the favor. Thus the only time during the Cold War that collective security was ever actually invoked was the case of the Korean War, and that was a freakish accident. Angry about mainland China's then absence of representation at the world body, the Soviets foolishly left the room in protest, unwittingly taking their veto with them. That mistake never got made again, and neither did another collective security mission.

So what's the rub? Why not just invoke the collective security principle according to the profoundly democratic concept of majority rule? Here we come finally to the real source of the United Nations' failures: the sovereignty question. Imagine if you cut the arms off a farmer, and then turned to him and said "I'm sorry, but since you are not a productive member of the community we can no longer spare the grain to feed you," thus condemning the farmer to death by starvation. If you'll pardon the gruesome metaphor, this gives you a pretty good approximation of the game neo-cons are playing in order to destroy the UN along with anything else that diminishes, even slightly, U.S. sovereignty (read unlimited prerogatives).

That is, the UN has failed -- where it has failed, which is far less than suggested -- precisely because certain key members refuse to give it the power to do its job. Note, for example, that there is no UN military, or even permanent command structure. Note, for example, that issues of war and peace are handled by the rarified Security Council, not the General Assembly where each member-state has a vote. And note that those Security Council resolutions can be spiked entirely by the veto of any one of the five permanent members. What this means is that the UN is like the hapless farmer, whose neighbor has taken away his capacity to act, only to then condemn him to death for his failure to contribute.

In short, the single most important fact for anyone to understand about the UN is that it is, by design and practice, never more than the sum of its parts, and quite frequently less. In this sense, John Bolton was actually right when he said there's no such thing as the UN. But, of course, he doesn't tell us why that is true, nor that, if he were to have his druthers, it would be even more true. A very big component of the UN's inability to solve global problems is the tight leash the United States keeps it on, even cutting off funding for years on end when it feels the need.

And so it is more than a little disingenuous, and therefore more than a little obnoxious, when neo-cons complain about the UN's failings, and then use this pretext as an excuse to call for its effective dismantling. But, of course, the modern conservative movement has become expert, out of necessity, at the boldest of bold-faced deceits in order to sell Americans on the diminishment of their own quality of life. Just as the coward who ran from Vietnam thirty years ago, and who ran again to Nebraska on 9/11, is a war hero, so the UN must be punished for the crime of an ineffectiveness fostered by the same folks seeking to kill it.

But, as usual with this crowd, it gets a lot worse yet. Most Americans labor under the gross misapprehension that their country is a leader and a team player in doing the very things neo-cons accuse the UN of failing at -- namely, making the planet a safer, healthier and happier place. You know, a world were land mines don't continue maiming children long after a war has ceased (wrong). A world where we don't destroy the ecosystem on which we depend via reckless energy policies producing global warming (wrong). A world where those who practice genocide or crimes against humanity can be tried and punished, or better yet, deterred (wrong). A world where children cannot be forcibly recruited in military forces (wrong).

On all these initiatives, and plenty more where those came from, not only has the U.S. not led, it has actively sought to block such humane and sensible efforts, precisely because regressive neo-conservatives want zero restriction on their capacity to rape and plunder as they see fit. Indeed, so precious to them are these individual freedoms to act any way they want that they stand foursquare for the principle of destroying all international law and governance, to make sure nothing ekes its way through the dike, just as the gun lobby feels it must not allow bans on assault rifles or hollow-point bullets, lest permitting the very concept of gun control to exist should lead to an opening of the floodgates.

Even the much-despised Bill Clinton came through for the neo-cons, proving just how absolutely nonexistent is UN autonomy on the big issues. Some big liberal, he. Not only did he do nothing while Rwanda drowned in its own blood, but this U.S. president actually blocked the UN from doing anything either, consigning 800,000 Africans to be hacked to death by machete. Sure, you'd be right to argue that the UN was completely ineffective in Rwanda. But it takes a malevolence of epic proportions and a capacity for truly Orwellian truth-destruction to ignore the real reason why, and to then use this failure as a pretext for further enervating the institution.

But then we all long ago learned one thing above all else when it comes to the cancerous tumor of an administration now sitting in the White House: unless proven otherwise, assume they are lying any time their lips move. This issue is no different. Neither George Bush nor Dick Cheney nor John Bolton want to reform and revitalize the UN any more than they wanted to free the Iraqi people, revive the economy with tax giveaways for the rich, or save Social Security. But there's enough common sense still left in the American body politic that telling the truth about their intentions would impede their pernicious schemes.

So they lie.

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York and has published research on the United Nations
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Albion Monitor April 14, 2005 (

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