UN: More harm than good?: Damned if they do, damned if they don't; the US involvement

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The Independent Online
IN THE name of a dwindling band of Desert Storm allies, Tomahawk cruise missiles may again be about to rain on Baghdad. Bosnia is being slowly left to die, while Somalia is turning into a shooting gallery. The reputation of the United Nations, once so bright with promise, is in tatters. And suddenly a familiar character has returned to the demonology of international relations. Thinly disguised by a blue helmet, the Ugly American is back.

If this is happening, Washington surely has every right to feel aggrieved. As far as the United States and its dealings with the UN are concerned, it is a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Take Bosnia. Under George Bush, Washington stood deliberately on the sidelines. But as the inadequacy of the UN effort became more obvious and embarrassing, the cry went up: what is going on, Washington? Where is US leadership? If only the Americans would get involved.

Rightly, Bill Clinton was criticised for making public policy of his every uncertainty. But after appeasement a la Vance-Owen had palpably failed, he came up with serious proposals that might have helped the Bosnians to prevent their country being removed from the map: the lifting of the arms embargo, and air strikes to hold the Serbs at bay. No way, said the wise old Europeans, before trembling with anxiety when Peter Tarnoff, the State Department's third-ranking official, suggested that the US might have to cut back its international commitments because of economic constraints at home.

Somalia has been a very different case history in disillusion, an illustration of the best and the worst in the way America perceives the world. In Somalia, America did lead - but from the noblest, most idealistic of motives. The US Marines who went ashore in Mogadishu that December night were not securing a neocolonial beachhead. Nor were they pieces on a global chess-board against a vanished Soviet Union. They were there to ensure that food and relief were distributed to a starved population. And, for a while, they succeeded. American soldiers were greeted as their predecessors in Europe nearly 50 years earlier. Now the venture has gone horribly, probably fatally, sour. Technically, the US has passed over command to the UN. In fact, though, the UN has been employing US helicopters with American pilots to conduct the bloody hunt for General Mohamed Farah Aideed. The UN special envoy is Jonathan Howe, a retired US admiral. The garlands of flowers have been replaced by 'Yankee Go Home'.

And how did things come to such a pass? Not because of any desire to push up the President's approval ratings: even June's air strike on the Iraqi intelligence headquarters, complete with that perfect arch villain, Saddam Hussein, gave Mr Clinton only the tiniest blip in the polls. As one of those 'rally events' beloved of psephologists in Washington, a few bombs dropped on an obscure warlord in a remote corner of Africa simply do not rate. Rather, US public opinion is bemused and vaguely bitter: weren't we there to help them - is this the thanks we get?

Once again, the US has succumbed to its tendency, nourished by its quickly bored media, to see the world in black and white. Like Bosnia, Somalia is a hideously complicated place. But General Aideed has become the required villain. At Admiral Howe's urging - shades of the old West - the UN has placed a dollars 25,000 reward on his head. But beyond the instinctive American faith that smart weapons will always squelch an overmatched foe, the trail to manipulators high in the White House, Pentagon or State Department bent on using the UN as camouflage for their own agenda simply peters out. Every sign is that America has no grand plan. Welcome to the post-Cold War era.

Everyone agrees that in a multipolar world, the role of the UN must be enhanced. But within this multinational body, the US, the richest and most powerful country and the sole power with a truly global military reach, inevitably has a special responsibility and place. But precisely what place? 'The trouble is, there is no road map,' said one administration official the other day, 'and the crises where the UN does get drawn in are by definition the toughest of all to solve.'

A sampling of Mr Clinton's recent utterances only confirms the dilemma. 'We cannot be the world's policeman,' says the President. But, as he remarked in Tokyo, 'Our global leadership has never been a more worthwhile investment.'

Mr Clinton, it may be said, cannot have it both ways. But nor can America's allies, either. If they want the US to be the anchor of what passes for a world order - to maintain a precarious balance in the Middle East, to prevent North Korea going nuclear, to keep troops in Europe, to shepherd a democratic Russia into the community of nations - then they must cede a preponderant role to Washington, in the UN as well. America would not be human if it did not on occasion look out for its own interests. But its record for altruism is no worse than anyone else's. What interest, after all - whether party political or geo-strategic - was at stake in the original intervention in Somalia? When he launched it, Mr Bush had already lost the election.

If the United Nations wants to shake off an impression of American dominance, then that is surely up to the organisation itself and its other 160-odd members. They must put up the money and troops to enable the UN to perform the tasks they have entrusted to it. If Somalia, say, were to be made a UN trusteeship, the UN must have the means to administer it. Individual countries must agree to a greater transfer of real authority to the supranational body, submerging, where necessary, their own interests. More so than most US presidents, Bill Clinton is by instinct, intellect and outlook an internationalist. The tragedy would be if the end result of the debacle in Bosnia, and the looming one in Somalia, were to make Peter Tarnoff's musings come true.

(Photograph omitted)