The late, great United Nations

June 07, 1996|By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- The most significant foreign-policy achievement of the Clinton administration may be unintentional. Judging by action and inaction over the past two years the United States seems determined to either destroy or replace the United Nations as the world's arbiter of war and peace.

In one dangerous area after another in recent years, the United Nations has failed to end war, or make or bring or keep peace: in Bosnia, in the Middle East, in Northern Ireland, in Haiti, in Somalia, in Liberia, in Rwanda and a few other places the world would rather forget. And in one country after another, the United States has moved, stumbled or been forced into the kind of peace-protecting negotiating and preventive military action the United Nations was created to do 50 years ago.

Health and sanitation

The United Nations has done and continues to do magnificent and indispensable service to the world in such modernizing technical areas as world health and sanitation. But, whatever we finally decide to call this post-Cold War period, it could be remembered for the pathetic and tragic failures of U.N. action, dramatized most recently by the slaughter of refugees and other civilians in ''U.N.-protected zones'' in Bosnia and the handcuffing of Dutch soldiers in U.N. service as hostages -- or by the performance of see-no-evil soldiers from the Fiji islands in Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon.

As U.N. diplomatic resolve and military moves have become a dark joke, President Clinton has moved into some of the same places where angels might fear to tread. American rhetoric has been erratic, but the Americans have come -- and are becoming what used to be called, rather disdainfully, the policeman of the world. The president, the secretary of state, the Seventh Fleet or hundreds of thousands of soldiers have come, and they have contained some of the world's most evil forces and instincts.

One of the more revealing comments on the way the world is these days was last month's report by the Women's Commission for Women and Children Refugees after a survey of the conditions and needs of the new widows and orphans, Muslim and Catholic, who are part of the damage left by civil war in what was once Yugoslavia.

''Americans are here''

The women (and men) interviewed by the commission thought the savagery of that war might be ended now because the men were worn out, too weary to do more killing, and because, in a repeated phrase, ''The Americans are here now.''

The United Nations, of course, has been there all along, but U.N. military forces no longer have credibility after a history of bungling and caution bordering on cowardice in much of the world for the last half-century. Perhaps American intervention has not always been wise or successful, but we are too powerful be laughed at openly. The perception is still there, as it should be after the Persian Gulf War, that the Americans are capable of using all that power if they are provoked.

The Americans have acted all over the world; we are not taken lightly. Where we have not acted is in New York. American inaction is leading to the re-election of Boutros Boutros-Ghali to another five-year term as secretary general of the United Nations. And given his record, a second Boutros-Ghali term could be the last, not only for him but for the organization itself.

The United Nations is a mess. In New York, too many people are paid too much to do too little. Turf wars are the order of most days. The boss, Mr. Boutros-Ghali, presented himself in 1990, or pledged himself, as a one-term ''interim'' secretary general. He was, after all, almost 70 years old then. He would be almost 80 if he won and completed a second term.

''BBG'' -- which is what he is called inside the United Nations -- is unfit to serve the organization for the next five years because he has failed as a peace-keeping strategist and in the two big jobs of the next secretary general: re-selling the United Nations to the world, beginning with the Americans; and downsizing the place by getting rid of about half its bloated little fiefdoms hiding behind acronyms unknown to outsiders.

A policy of inaction

But so far, inaction has been U.S. policy on BBG's quiet campaign to keep his job.

In the past, President Clinton has favored, at least privately, a stand-alone U.N. rapid response force, which would be made up of volunteers from anywhere in the world -- and almost certainly equipped and trained by the U.S. Army. ''Double volunteers,'' that is, men and women already in the military service of their own countries volunteering to join the U.N. force. In the long run, he has said, neither the world nor the United States would be well-served by one country, no matter how powerful, acting as the Romans of the 21st century.

He's right about that, but the politics of the thing is even trickier than the usual job of selling Americans on acting in any foreign-policy venture east of Long Island or west of Long Beach.

If he chooses to use it, President Clinton has absolute power in the matter of Mr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali's tenure -- the United States' Security Council veto over who will be the secretary general at the end of this year. But politically, that would mean pushing an acceptable opposition candidate. Unfortunately, that's not the kind of fight Mr. Clinton usually picks.

So the odds are that BBG will get his second term.

Then he will be a lame duck, and the United Nations will be a dead duck.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/06/96

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