At Large

U.N. Does It Again

Leave it to the United Nations -- to screw things up.

By 3.23.04

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Give this to Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. What Spain's prime minister-elect lacks in diplomatic tact and a general willingness to offend terrorist sensibilities, he more than makes up for with his impeccable sense of timing.

Last Thursday, for example, just as Mr. Zapatero was slandering the American liberation of Iraq, which he called "a failure," and demanding a stronger U.N. presence, which he claimed was the only thing that could save Iraq, polls were showing that Iraqis were happier than ever. News from a beleaguered region, meanwhile, confirmed that the U.N. was as hapless as always.

According to a survey by Oxford Research International, one year after the toppling of a tyrant, Iraqis are overwhelmingly happier. When asked how they saw their lives these days, 70 percent of Iraqis said their situation was very good or quite good. Only 15 percent said things were very bad. Taking the long view, 71 percent said they expected conditions in their lives to be much better or somewhat better a year from now. Among the more discouraging statistics were the 17 percent who said attacks against coalition forces were justified. But compare that to last week's Pew poll, and you find that the popularity of attacks against Americans and Westerners in Iraq pales next to the support such attacks enjoy in supposedly pro-American Muslim countries (31 percent favor them in Turkey; 70 percent in Jordan).

AT THE SAME TIME as these polls were confounding Bush-bashing newsrooms the world over, the limitations of a United Nations peacekeeping force were becoming tragically transparent. Mosques burned, 28 people were dead, a civil war loomed, and politicians issued ominous warnings about an influx of foreign terrorists. Baghdad? Try Belgrade.

Nearly half a decade after the U.S. intervention and the appointment of a U.N. authority, discord persists in the war-torn capital of Serbia-Montenegro. In the latest burst of violence, Serbian nationalists last Thursday rioted and clashed with police, at one point even setting fire to a 17th century mosque. In response, one Serbian minister cautioned that violence against the province's Muslim Albanian majority could lure terrorists to the troubled region.

I mention this partly because conservatives, especially American ones, often are accused of being insufficiently deferential to the U.N. Allow me to remedy this state of affairs: the U.N. should be acknowledged for its role in perpetuating the chaos in Kosovo. Lest I judge too harshly, let me point out that the U.N.'s solution to the region's conflict is typical of its solution to every international conflict: announce that everything is fine, then hope reality cooperates.

It may be equally poor etiquette to argue that the U.N. inflamed ethnic rivalries. And yet, by willfully glossing over the long-simmering tensions between the Albanian Muslim majority and the Serbian Christian minority, the U.N.'s plan to preserve a single multiethnic state did exactly that. As last week's eruption of violence attests, the effect of the U.N. plan was akin to throwing a blanket over a bonfire. Bleak and bloody, Kosovo today is a testament to the shortsightedness of a U.N. administration and the fecklessness of its oversight.

NONETHELESS, THE FICTION THAT only the U.N. can win the peace remains, for some people, a compelling one. The New York Times, chief exponent of the see-no-evil-unless-you-can-pin-it-on-Bush school of editorial writing, assures us that "Winning the cooperation of countries like France and Russia will require the Bush administration to be far more serious about turning over real responsibility in Iraq to the United Nations and NATO."

Here we have an interesting glimpse into a particular kind of liberal psyche. For the Times, the most important question concerning our efforts in Iraq is not whether democracy is working for Iraqis, but whether it's working for those countries that strongly opposed its establishment in the first place. True, acknowledges the Times, Iraqis are better off without Saddam; on the other hand, Russia and France clearly are not. Follow the syllogism? The Times' editorialists are willing to concede that the administration pursued the right policy in ousting Saddam, but only by putting their rhetorical weight behind the opponents of said policy. They're for it because they're against it, you see. No wonder they're hot for John Kerry.

For my part, I trust Spectator readers won't think me too radical if I confess my belief that we did not go into Iraq to please the French and the Russians. That's why we called it Operation Iraqi Freedom, as opposed to, say, Operation Appease the French and Russians, which anyway was co-opted by Spanish socialists. And while the gradual reduction of terrorism created by a free, pluralistic Iraq will certainly benefit both these countries, at this stage at least, it is certainly the Iraqis that matter. Harping about France and Russia seems a tad misguided.

DON'T GET ME WRONG. I'M all for criticism of the president. Basic democratic freedoms -- i.e. the right to speak out against the government without ending up like human mulch -- rank highly on my long list of reasons for supporting the war in Iraq. Servicing Jacques Chirac's galactic ego and saving Vladimir Putin's ballistic missile client, needles to say, did not make the list. Nor is it unreasonable to suggest that, far from a moral outrage, French whining and Russian coolness to Iraq may actually mean that something is right with the world. One reason for their hostility, after all, is that the end of Saddam has meant an end to the U.N. oil-for-food program from which they made out, quite literally, like bandits.

More worrying for Paris and Moscow, is U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's announcement last Friday that an independent commission will go beyond an internal U.N. probe to uncover the corruption and mismanagement in the oil-for-food program. This must come as a serious blow. Under the program, remember, oil companies handpicked by Saddam stashed money in a U.N. account that allegedly delivered some $10.1 billion to, among others, France and Russia. So long as a United Nations probe was tasked with the investigation, both countries could trust in the U.N.'s incompetence to keep them in the clear. Their luck may have just run out.

To its everlasting credit, the Bush administration long ago concluded that an organization whose Security Council is headed by Syria, the Hezbollah fill-up station, has only a limited utility in the war on terror. The U.N. is needed for one purpose and one purpose only: to help bring about free elections to hand the country back to Iraqis. That this wisdom has yet to filter down to some of our center-left cognoscenti should hardly be surprising. They're still singing the U.N.'s praises for mopping up that whole Kosovo mess.

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About the Author

Jacob Laksin is a writer in New York City.