U.N. to the Rescue?

Anne Applebaum, no Buchananesque isolationist, has a rather sober assessment of the prospect of the United Nations doing much to help in Iraq or elsewhere.

Certainly, given how much importance is sometimes attributed to the United Nations, it is odd how little notice has been taken of what may be the worst U.N. scandal ever. Tucked away in arms inspector Charles Duelfer’s report on Iraqi weapons — this is the report mostly remembered for its “no weapons” conclusion — are allegations that the United Nations’ oil-for-food program had, at the time of the invasion of Iraq, degenerated almost entirely into a money-laundering scheme. Remember: This was a program set up for humanitarian reasons. It was supposed to help ordinary Iraqis obtain food and medicine, despite economic sanctions. But not only did it help generate some $11 billion that went directly into secret Iraqi government bank accounts — that’s how Saddam Hussein built all of those palaces — it provided massive bribes, in the form of “oil vouchers,” to a long list of Hussein’s friends and advocates around the world.

The oil-for-food bribery scandal has gotten occasional attention in the conservative portion of the blogosphere but has been all but unreported in the mainstream press. And the scandal is no abberation. The UN is the worst kind of bureaucracy, run by unaccountable patricians with an enormous sense of self-entitlement. The vast majority of its senior staff comes from Third World states where graft is the norm and skimming off the top is simply business as usual. Further, as Applebaum notes,

[T]he United Nations is not a government with a court system attached to it, or an entrenched press corps, or a voting public. Committees can be set up to investigate U.N. wrongdoing — the secretary general, Kofi Annan, has set up one to investigate the oil-for-food scandal — but no one much monitors their progress, since it is in no one’s interest to hold the United Nations accountable. Here’s the evidence: Sevan’s name appeared on the Iraqi list a week ago, yet it has inspired only a smattering of media attention and virtually no public discussion.

This negligence does not, I should add, mean that the United Nations should be kicked out of New York or that the United States should stop paying U.N. dues. An international organization can be a useful umbrella beneath which to hold peace talks, or a tool with which to distribute emergency food aid. Because it represents the only form of diplomatic influence for many smaller countries, it’s a bit pointless to demonize the United Nations, since someone will always be needlessly offended.

But because it is accountable to no one, an international organization is never going to be good at managing large, long-term projects involving a lot of money or a lot of soldiers either. For that reason, the United Nations should never be confused with legitimately elected governments or America’s historical allies. A decision to “send in the United Nations” is never going to be the full solution to any problem. And in light of what we are learning about the United Nations’ appalling record in Iraq, it’s pretty clear that calling upon “the United Nations” to save us in Iraq is tantamount to a cry of desperation.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.