Annan mission reflects history of U.N. riding to the rescue

March 02, 1998|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON -- On too many occasions, the United Nations has been the big man's whipping boy. President Clinton for one has kicked it harder than his two immediate Republican predecessors ever did. Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe at it and Charles de Gaulle called it "ce machin." Yet once again we see how in a crisis the big powers run to it to get themselves off the hook, this time for a bombing no one really had the argument or stomach for.

Back in 1954, there was the charged incident over the capture of 17 U.S. airmen by China. American opinion became extremely agitated. There was even some wild talk about the use of nuclear weapons. The United Nations was asked to intervene and Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold went to Beijing to talk to Premier Chou En-lai. It took six months of negotiating, but the men finally were released. Dwight D. Eisenhower devoted a whole chapter in his biography on the incident, but Hammarskjold's central role is almost totally ignored.

It is the same in Robert F. Kennedy's book on the Cuban missile crisis, when the Soviet Union and the United States came perilously close to a nuclear exchange. There is only a passing mention of Secretary-General U Thant's letter to the Soviet premier, Khrushchev, written in the face of a strong protest by the Soviet ambassador to the United Nations. Yet it was U Thant's letter that elicited a crucial response from Khrushchev indicating there was room for compromise.

In Suez in 1956, in Lebanon in 1958, in the Congo in 1969 and in the 1973 Middle East war, it was the United Nations that provided the escape hatch for the big powers that had put themselves on a collision course. In the wake of the Yom Kippur war, although both the United States and the Soviet Union had agreed in principle to a cease-fire, there seemed to be no way of implementing it. The situation looked exceedingly dangerous. Egypt was calling for Soviet help. President Richard M. Nixon put the United States on a nuclear alert. It was fast footwork at the United Nations, principally by a group of Third World nations, that helped break the impasse. They pushed for a U.N. force to go in -- and, unbelievably by the slow lights of modern day interventions, it was on the ground the next day.

With this victory in Baghdad the present secretary-general, Kofi Annan, looks more ready than any officeholder since Hammarskjold to take up his mantle. He played the cards dealt him by the United States, Iraq, Russia and France with subtle patience and strategic finesse.

Yet the United Nations is a pale shadow of what it could become, as a mediator and peacemaker, not to mention its work FTC with refugees, nuclear proliferation or the critical role its ancillary organization, the International Monetary Fund, is playing in the Asian crisis. All of these are strapped for cash, mainly because of the U.S. failure to pay its $1 billion back dues in the case of the central United Nations, or to increase its quota in the case of the IMF.

Though the finger of blame today is usually pointed at Congress rather than the White House, the denigration of the United Nations that led to congressional disenchantment owes much to Mr. Clinton.

He had taken office committed to reinvigorating the United Nations.

But that was buried in the sands of Somalia during the U.N. intervention in its civil war in 1993, a mission that went horribly wrong when a great firefight led to serious U.S. casualties -- 18 killed, 78 wounded. Contrary to what was said at the time, only a minority of U.S. soldiers were under U.N. command. And the operation that led to the gun battle was initiated by the Special Operations Command in Florida. But when it all went wrong the Clinton administration cruelly tried to shift the blame, telling reporters that U.S. lives were lost because of flaws in the U.N. command.

Right now, the White House and Congress owe the United Nations one.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 3/02/98

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