Let’s get one thing straight from the outset: The U.N. sucks. And before you start talking about the starving babies it saves and the thorns it pulls from cuddly creatures’ paws, please remember that all sorts of awful institutions do good things. Hamas funds hospitals, Hitler built highways, Stalin improved literacy, Baywatch helped people with tired blood by providing uplifting, and uplifted, torsos to look at. One can be in favor of many of the things the U.N. does without being in favor of the U.N., just as being in favor of regular garbage collection doesn’t mean I have to be in favor of the government collecting garbage. If the government stopped picking up my trash, that wouldn’t mean my home would be swallowed up in bags of filth. And, if the U.N. stopped feeding starving people that would hardly mean starving people would never be fed.
The problems with the United Nations are legion. It is a parliament of thugs masquerading as the authentic voice of the world’s people. It is a megaphone for simultaneously childish and serious America-bashing. It is a place where utopian schemes and Malthusian nightmares will always find a sympathetic ear. It is a gold rush for criminals and cranks looking to drain the treasuries of nations too racked with guilt to put up a “No Panhandling” sign once and for all.
There are plenty of people, delegates to the U.N. at the forefront, who think the U.N. is a “democratic” voice for the peoples of the world and that it is therefore somehow immoral, arrogant, or unsophisticated to defy its edicts and brush off its condemnation.
This conviction, alas, stands on a foundation of shoddy thinking and fictional assumptions. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who’ve tried to use the fact that the U.N. voted on something as proof that the U.N. is right. College kids will shriek the word as if it drips with self-evident authority: “It voted against the United States!” “Don’t you understand? It voted!”
Well, voting, in and of itself, has as much to do with democracy as disrobing has to do with sex. Both are often necessary, neither are ever sufficient.
I always think of “the Commission” when I want to illustrate this point. That’s what the Mafia called its confabs of the major mob families. Think of that scene in The Godfather where Don Corleone arranges for the return of Michael from Sicily (and subsequently realizes that all along it was Barzini, not that pimp Tattaglia, who outfoxed Santino). The Commission was democratic. It took votes on where and when to install drug dealers, bribe judges, and exterminate cops. Now, just because it took a vote, does that make its decisions any more noble or just? Well, the U.N. is a forum for tyrants and dictators who check the returns on their Swiss bank accounts — and not the needs or voices of their own people — for guidance on how to vote. The fact that Robert Mugabe, Bashar Assad, Kim Jong-Il, Hassan al-Bashir, Fidel Castro, et al., condemn the United States from time to time is a badge of honor. And the fact that we, and other decent peoples, feel the need to curry their favor and approval is a badge of shame.
Oh, sure, there are plenty of decent nations in the U.N., but that doesn’t change the fact that decisions are made in a political environment where good guys must compromise with bad guys. If the Commission had had a few honorary slots for some policemen and priests, would that make its votes that much more honorable? When the Commission votes 10 to 2 in favor of selling heroin to Girl Scouts, should the cop and the priest feel bad? “Darn, lost another vote!” Should they try to, in the words of U.N. fetishists, “effect change from within the system” by seeking “constructive compromise with those whom they have sincere differences”? Or, should they say, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to deal with, be lectured to, or be shaken down by a bunch of gangsters and tyrants, just because the New York Times says I should.”
BUSH TO THE RESCUE I could go on, but none of this is actually the point I want to get to today. It’s just that I’d hate to sound enthusiastic about the U.N. when I talk about President Bush’s speech.
It is entirely possible that George W. Bush will go down in history as the savior of the United Nations, and as much as I dislike the U.N., I salute him for it. The brilliance of Bush’s speech, and of the maneuvering that led to it, is still sinking in around Washington. Somehow, Bush managed, once again, to do exactly what his critics wanted him to and defeat them entirely in the process. It’s sort of like a Godzilla movie where the little Japanese scientists scream “Over here! Come here!” and when Godzilla finally does exactly what they want him to do, he squishes them between his toes and keeps moving.
The “international community” banged their collective spoons on their U.N. highchairs, demanding that the United States work with and through them. Bush ignored their pleadings even as the din of their tantrums became near-deafening. Then, slowly, he turned to the U.N. and squished it.
Kofi Annan’s speech might as well have been the plaintive “Noooooooooooooo!” one hears right before Godzilla’s foot muffles it out of existence.
By framing the case against Saddam as a story of defiance by Iraq not of the U.S., but of the U.N., Bush put America in the position of defending the honor of the U.N.
It seems everyone forgot that the United Nations had demanded Saddam’s compliance with a list of U.N. resolutions and that Saddam ignored them all, like a serial killer who shrugs off a meter maid. (And, remember, these were “mandatory” resolutions. The resolutions against Israel, which Annan claims to be more pressing, are not.)
What a perfect argument: You say we are defying the U.N., Kofi, but the reality is that you are defying it. We do not want to do the U.N.’s work for it. But if you won’t stand up for the standards and ideals you set, then we will stand up for them. And if you are not with us — if your “statesmen” sit out the fight arguing about clever cheeses and tut-tutting the U.S. in the International Herald Tribune — then your demands and resolutions are nothing more than the vapor that dissipates from the body of a bureaucrat when his spine is removed. You will join the League of Nations in the dustbin of history, and your pretty headquarters will be nothing more than a giant pet rock on the East River — and perhaps a useful excuse to send your wives on New York shopping trips.
When Bush left the room, one could almost see the giant red welt on Kofi Annan’s face, left there after Bush’s proverbial pimp-slap.
Now, there are probably some problems with all of this. The suggestion that the United States is risking its blood and treasure for the U.N.’s honor is surely distasteful. But that is the byproduct of America’s action, not the motive. The United States is not “working with” the United Nations. It is working the United Nations.
So, let the babies have their bottle. The international realm is a state of nature, and in that Hobbesian world the United States is the walking boss and the U.N. is, at best, what we decide to make it. At least while George Bush is running the show.