Two Cheers for the Blue Flag

Two Cheers for the Blue Flag

Assessing the United Nations

Across the political spectrum in the United States, the United Nations excites strong feelings, but these are usually based on preconceptions and misconceptions rather than on an objective look at the strengths and weaknesses of the organization. No rational person who has observed the UN at work could ever suspect that it had either the ambition or the ability to dominate the United States, let alone rule the world. But that does not stop American conservatives from insisting that it is trying to do the former; nor does it stop liberals from complaining that it is not successfully doing the latter.

Some on the left denounced the Americans and British for attacking Iraq without a UN mandate, but many of those same people would have been as quick to denounce the organization as a cover for U.S. imperialism if it had actually voted to support the attack (as it did and they did during the 1991 Gulf War). It is perhaps typical that when representatives of the Iraqi Governing Council addressed the UN Security Council on 21 July, members of “Iraq Occupation Watch” disrupted proceedings from the public gallery, accusing the UN of “collusion” with the United States. Nuance is often lost on the edges of the political spectrum: in fact, one of the first decisions the Iraqis had taken was to come to the UN so as to bolster their legitimacy against continuing U.S. control.

At the other extreme, when the White House decided to give up on gaining Security Council support for an Iraqi invasion, the usual suspects hit the op-ed pages heralding the end of the organization. Certainly the epitaph from Richard Perle was somewhat premature. He announced in March that when Saddam Hussein went, he would “take the UN down with him.” In fact, Perle and his colleagues had been saying similar things for a long time, with all the fervor of true believers predicting the rapture and the Second Coming. Saddam’s projected fall was just another peg on which to hang his message of justified and untrammeled American supremacy.

It is a typically solipsistic American worldview that measures the UN’s value by its usefulness to U.S. foreign policy. UN resolutions are something that the United States preaches about and enforces upon others (because they are often useful), but is not bound by itself (whenever they’re not useful). There is one use both political parties have agreed on: the organization is a useful scapegoat for American policy setbacks. Bill Clinton, for example, blamed the UN for the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia, even though that was an operation conducted without informing the UN forces, which, unthanked to this day, rescued the survivors. Even more cynical were the conservative attacks on the organization in the run-up to the Iraq War. Right-wing pundits criticized the UN for its failure to act during the Rwandan genocide, although it was actually Madeleine Albr...