The U.N. Excuse

* Don't blame the U.N. (at least not too much).

Feeling their oats, members of the Republican leadership have aggressively and dramatically thrust themselves into world affairs. Soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole has been to Europe, pushing for a stronger policy on Bosnia. Anointed Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has likewise lashed out at the conduct of Bosnian policy. And Jesse Helms, well, he has been Jesse Helms--mouthing off at any and every available moment.

All three have severely criticized the United Nations, an organization they feel has lost all credibility as the Bosnian debacle goes from bad to worse. And it's hard to argue on that point.

The U.N.'s central mission--to prevent aggression--has been so utterly warped in the Balkans that the U.N. mission there now acts as a shield for aggressors to continue their killing. An organization created in the wake of a horrendous genocide is now abetting one of its own.

But the U.N. too easily becomes a scapegoat. The second word in its title is, after all, "nations." The member states, after all, still have the bulk of the power, and thus the responsibility, for the U.N.'s conduct. The organization doesn't send out one peacekeeper without the consent of the Security Council.

That said, there is a U.N. bureaucracy, and it is responsible for its actions. So when Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali went to Sarajevo two years ago and called the Balkan conflict a "rich man's war," it is perfectly appropriate to call him a blithering idiot--the blame is his alone. Similarly, when U.N. envoy Akashi or U.N. General Rose talk like the Serbs are just another warring faction, rather than the aggressor, we can justifiably accuse them of moral cowardice.

But the bottom line is that the U.N. is failing in Bosnia because the member states are acting like a bunch of ninnies. It was their decision to send a lightly-armed U.N. force to the war zone. Their vague mandates opened the way for the tragic confusion on the ground. It is their abdication of responsibility that is to blame.

What Bosnia shows is not the inherent incompetence or uselessness of the U.N., but rather more like what happens when the rider gets off a tractor and leaves the machine to drive on its own: it goes around in circles. And the member states have not taken the opportunity to fit it with an auto-pilot. They have passed up several opportunities to grant the U.N. a real military capability, a reform that might have allowed it to actually do what should be done in Bosnia.

Unfortunately, that's often not the message you get from the three Republican musketeers. Especially for the xenophobic Helms, Bosnia is an opportunity to attack the idea of international organizations, of which he has a distinct phobia (witness his hysterics over the World Trade Organization).

And if it's the Helms message that carries the day, that would have major repercussions. The U.S. is the primary funder of the U.N., and without its support the organization will start to shrivel. A little shriveling, of course, might not be bad; the U.N. has distinct symptoms of blosting. But will Helms and company know when to stop? It's unlikely.

The U.N. is a tool. It remains useful in many areas of the world, where election monitoring, peace-keeping and border monitoring missions continue. Moreover, it still can serve a useful function in collective security--the Gulf War wasn't all that long ago.

Gingrich is right when he says the U.N. has been tainted by Bosnia. But the U.N. is really a symptorn of the problem rather than its source. The real problem is in Washington, Paris, London and Moscow.

David L. Bosco's column appears on alternator Wednesdays.

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