The Conference Table or the Battlefield

In the fall of 2002, President Bush said the United Nations was becoming "an ineffective debating society."

These days, slandering the U.N. as "ineffective" is more popular than NASCAR racing. Some demonize the institution, believing it to be the prelude to a "One World Government" ruled by the anti-Christ as "prophesied" in the Book of Revelation.  

Suspect biblical interpretation aside, I'm with President Eisenhower on this one: "With all the defects, with all the failures...the U.N. still represents man's best-organized hope to substitute the conference table for the battlefield."  

As inhabitants of an "unconquerable world" -- to borrow Jonathan Schell's apt phrase -- turning away from the international conference table is to invite a self-fulfilling apocalyptic prophecy.

True, the U.N. record on enforcing security measures isn't great. But that's a small (OK, very small) part of the U.N.'s many functions. The enforcement problem isn't a new one. Gabriel Kolko's 1968 book, "The Politics of War", argued that the U.N. "failed before it began...Washington conceived it with exceptions and loopholes, in an atmosphere of suspicion and manipulation, not as a forum for agreement, but as an instrument in the Great Power conflict."  

To get the nitty-gritty about the U.N.'s American roots, as well as the "suspicion and manipulation" of U.S. policymakers at the San Francisco and Dumbarton Oaks conferences, check out Stephen Schlesinger's "Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations."  

But why throw out the baby, tub and plumbing with the bath water, as John Bolton fantasizes? The U.N. can take partial, if not total, credit for a number of significant contributions to global peace and security. Two important contributions come immediately to mind:  

1.) The U.N. is "the preeminent institutional source of international law," as international law scholar Christopher Joyner puts it.  

"The United Nations is not a magic bullet capable of producing international justice and rectitude," Joyner adds. Rather, law created through the U.N. "can only be as strong as its member states - especially the Great Powers on the Security Council - are willing to make it be."  

It should be noted, the genocide in Rwanda wasn't stopped by the U.N. because of a veto by the U.S., the creators of the U.N.  

2.) There have been no nuclear conflicts since the U.N. was established. You didn't think nonproliferation treaties were facilitated at a ranch in Crawford, Texas, did you?  

No doubt, there are those who point to the oil-for-food "scandal," as if stealing-crumbs-from-the-cookie-jar is somehow more scandalous than the fact that the "humanitarian" program didn't even begin until five years after Gulf War I when the U.N. was reporting "near apocalyptic" damage in Iraq.  

A 1991 U.N. report concluded: "It is unmistakable that the Iraqi people may soon face a famine (and epidemics) if massive aid (is) not rapidly met. Time is short."   Five years later, the gracious gift of Resolution 986 was bestowed on Iraq, but with an oil-sales cap. In a country of 23 million, the planned oil-for-food revenues equaled $200 worth of goods per-capita per-year.  

"Even allowing for domestic production outside the oil-for-food program and for smuggling, the result still appears to leave Iraqi citizens an exceedingly low per-capita income, which may be at or below the $1 per day World Bank threshold of absolute poverty," a 2002 Global Policy Forum study noted.  

By George, if only the U.N. were a debating society and not an instrument of the Great Powers!  

Given the Bush administration's track record on threat-assessments, maybe this time around we'll have a real debate before military action is taken. And just maybe the "liberal" media won't report administration claims as if gospel truths are being proclaimed.  

After all, as Joseph Joubert observed, "it is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it." And, I would add, especially when we're talking about nukes in an unconquerable world.

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