UN: More harm than good?: When cowboy hats replace blue berets

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The Independent Online
THE relationship between the United States and the United Nations has been assuming some disturbing shapes. Inevitably, the UN has always been powerfully affected, and its course often directed, by US foreign policy. But in 1993 there is a clear danger that the UN may become a tool of US domestic politics. If that happens, the shadowy but always potentially valuable moral authority that the UN possesses will soon become exhausted. By controlling that authority and then abusing it for purely internal purposes, Washington will have destroyed the UN. International anarchy - widely prevalent as it is - will then become an unmitigated condition.

The subordination of the United Nations to US domestic politics is not a remote danger. In some areas it is already an established fact, though we may still hope it is not an irreversible one. The pattern is as follows: the American public approves of spectacular US acts of international violence - but only if these are not accompanied or followed by heavy American casualties, and provided also that they are perceived as virtuously motivated. Air strikes meet the first condition. The blessing of the UN meets the second. So air strikes with the blessing of the UN are the ticket. As President Clinton has found, these are an effective remedy for ailing poll-ratings. The cartoonists, naturally quicker on the draw than many commentators, have already detected this connection.

There may be cases in which a given action is both conducive to presidential popularity and also in accordance with the vital interests of global stability and of the West in particular. Desert Storm was such a case. The recent bombings of military-industrial targets in Iraq may be another. But there is one case where air strikes, with the blessing of the UN, are being used for the benefit of presidential ratings and for no other purpose. This is Somalia.

The avowed objectives of the UN in Somalia are, first, to facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid, and then to encourage the emergence of stable and peaceful political conditions. The second objective is certainly remote and probably chimerical; in any case it is not necessarily served by bombing Somalis in the here and now.

The urgent objective is the distribution of humanitarian aid and this is not promoted but frustrated by actions like this week's American bombings. The testimony of aid workers on the ground is conclusive on that point. They know that the raids endanger their lives, as well as their capacity to help. Infuriated Somalis, like those who killed four journalists after this week's bombings, are quite as likely to attack aid workers. Those workers are now distancing themselves from the UN, which was originally there to help them, because the UN's blessing for the air strikes puts them in danger.

The operation in Somalia has turned into a macabre kind of Western. The guy in the black hat is General Mohamed Farah Aideed. The guy in the white hat is retired Admiral Jonathan Howe, the special envoy of the UN, who is, of course, an American. No one who is experienced in the ways of the UN - even in days when US authority over it was much less than it is now - will suppose that this particular special envoy is under the control of the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In theory, of course, the primary commitment of a senior UN official is to the UN. In practice, where a senior official belongs to a big country he remains in the service of his country in matters where its interests are affected. In the case of the United States, this means all matters of importance. In particular, where an American is in charge of a UN operation in the field, that operation will be run to US requirements.

There was a classic case of US-UN control at the moment of truth in the Congo, in September 1960. Andrew Cordier, the senior American official in the UN Secretariat, was sent to head the UN operation in the Congo, at a time when the Americans wished to get rid of the country's Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. Cordier put all the local machinery of the UN at the disposal of the CIA, so leading to Lumumba's political destruction, and later to his murder.

Admiral Howe is in political charge of UN operations in Somalia. The nominal UN military commander is Turkish, but it is reliably reported that UN forces are led in practice by an American major-general, Thomas Montgomery. What is supposed to be a UN operation is an American-run operation, conducted with an eye to presidential ratings, and not to any Somali needs, nor to the needs and lives of aid workers or soldiers of various nationalities serving the UN on the ground, of whom 35 have been killed and 137 wounded in the past month.

The situation is taking on an eerie resemblance to a programme propounded for former Yugoslavia in the closing months of the Bush administration by a former US Air Force general, Michael J Dugan . This was a plan for massive military intervention in both Bosnia and Serbia, with Britain, France and Italy supplying the ground forces, and America the air power. Somalia is like that, except that it is on a lesser scale and the countries supplying the ground forces, and sustaining the casualties, are more numerous. The Italians have protested strongly against what the Americans are doing and the French have given them some support. It is essential that other countries, including Britain, should join in the pressure. I had hoped that Mr Boutros-Ghali would soon join in. His silence about what amounts to the hijacking of the UN operation in Somalia has not been to his credit. Even less creditably, he appears this week to be following the US line, which his spokesman, Joe Sills, implicitly ascribes to the Security Council. This interpretation needs to be challenged at the Security Council.

The policies pursued under Admiral Howe have increased the sufferings of the Somalis and of those who have been trying to help them. The same policies are bringing the UN into a discredit that may be terminal. Britain and France should make it clear to the Clinton administration that this is not acceptable. In doing so, they should call for the early replacement of Admiral Howe. The Admiral is, of course, only the monkey, but it would teach the organ-grinder in the White House a salutary lesson.