Today, too much blame is directed at President Bush for allegedly turning away from the international community – particularly in not gaining UN support before launching Operation Iraqi Freedom. The story of the UN and US is complex, and in many ways paradoxical. The theme is that the UN is too often regarded as the great mediator in humanitarian efforts and measure of world opinion – both far from the truth. As a result, when the US opposes the UN, we take the fall in the court of public opinion while providing the most aid and assistance to the rest of the world.
Iraq is a good example. When sanctions were imposed on Saddam Hussein’s regime, the UN Oil for Food Program (R.I.P 1996-2003) was designed to assist Iraqis with food and medicine. A great plan on the outside, but over the course of seven years the program declined into a glorified money-laundering scheme. In total, about $11 billion of UN funding was funneled to Saddam’s cohorts around the world and used to build palaces and buy weapons – anything but actually feed Iraqis. The worst part is that UN officials are now implicated among the 270 people or organizations in 46 countries that profited from this program. As a result, the $300 million that would have been spent on the program this year will be used in a largely internal investigation.
Flash to 2002 when President Bush wanted to use force against Saddam Hussein, who had been the subject of eighteen UN resolutions and refused to comply with UN Security Inspectors. Somehow, Saddam wasn’t scared of the UN. But when President Bush finally acted without the approval of the UN Security Council, he was criticized for acting unilaterally against the sentiment of the world community. All the while, the UN not only failed to feed Iraqis, but became involved in a mess that will take years and millions of UN dollars (and thus US tax dollars) to sort out. On the other hand, the US reinforced UN intent-by removing Saddam and rebuilding the country, (In recent, but not surprising news, the UN is balking at promises to staff election officials in Iraq – but if elections go poorly, who will get the blame?).
Iraq is a unique situation, but the same contradiction exists with the Sudan. Since March of 2003, over 70 thousand people have been killed and 1.5 million displaced from their homes. Sounds like the dictionary definition of a crisis, yet the UN will not lead the humanitarian charge. The European Union is funding an increase in African Union peacekeepers. In addition to being the only world government to consider the situation in Sudan a genocide, the U.S. has cleared $95 million for Sudanese aid (taken from Iraqi rebuilding funds), and around $600 million more has been approved by Congress. Last week, President Bush made two U.S. military cargo planes available for use by peacekeepers. What about the UN? After 20 months, the UN has managed to name a council to investigate allegations of genocide. True, there is more that the US could do, but we are hardly prepared to deploy troops – and if we did it would be called imperialist nation-building in many corners.
The truth is that in times of crisis, the world looks to the US for fast aid – and for good reason. The U.S. funds one fifth of the UN budget, while the UN contributes only 17 percent of the foreign aid that the U.S. does. Yet, somehow, our reputation continues to be marred because of the UN both in the world community and at home. In truth the UN needs changes in order to restore its legitimacy – until then it will remain as it is with Sudan, mired in bureaucracy. We need to stop demeaning our own positive efforts in the world because of the UN.
The UN is not the end all of multinational opinion; we need to see it for what it is.