The United Nations officially came into existence on Oct. 24, 1945. The world had decided it must unite to prevent another catastrophic world war. The United Nations was not the first attempt, its forerunner, the League of Nations, established in 1919 under the Treaty of Versailles, was intended “to promote international cooperation and to achieve peace and security.”
Now, the United Nations is under possibly the greatest scandal in its history. Over $20 billion was allegedly stolen from humanitarian purposes under the “Oil-For-Food” program administered by the United Nations. No less an international criminal than Saddam Hussein was at the center of a scheme to funnel oil revenue to a host of officials, including possibly some of the very European diplomats who opposed the U.S. military action against Iraq. Accusations have reached the offices of Kofi Annan, the U.N.’s current secretary-general.
The internal investigation within the United Nations being conducted by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker appears limited given the investigation’s inability to utilize subpoena power to produce documents and testimony. Having to rely upon the cooperation of the very individuals and nations being accused of participating in the scheme is hardly a reliable methodology for uncovering truth.
Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman has called upon Kofi Annan to resign, while conservatives including Pat Buchanan and Paul Weyrich have raised questions about whether the United States should simply withdraw from the United Nations, believing that the U.N. has simply turned hostile to U.S. national security interests.
Now, as the crisis has drawn deeper attention in the American media, President Bush has issued through John Danforth, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a statement expressing continued confidence in Secretary-General Annan. These favorable words are hardly likely to end the controversy.
The American public has long held a belief in the original purpose of the United Nations. Americans by nature do not like foreign wars. Had we not been attacked on 9-11, we would never have attacked the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even with the 9-11 attack, our invasion of Iraq prompted a firestorm of attack from the American left demonstrating just how difficult pre-emptive wars are to justify in a liberal democracy.
John Kerry pounded President Bush throughout the election cycle with the theme that the president had not done enough to utilize the United Nations and build an international coalition. Clearly, the American public would have preferred a diplomatic solution to the Iraq crisis.
Yet respected conservatives such as Pat Buchanan and Paul Weyrich are expressing much more than their disgust at the Oil-For-Food scandal. This recent suggestion of rampant corruption within and among the United Nations countries is for the American right merely the last straw. The fundamental problem is that the United Nations is beginning to be perceived as anti-American. Rather than seeing the United Nations as a constructive forum in which international disputes can be peacefully resolved, many American conservatives are loudly expressing their convictions that the United Nations is being governed by a coalition of nation’s whose collective goal is to diminish the power and world position of the United States.
In this controversy, the United Nations runs the risk of becoming its own worst enemy. Paul Volcker clearly commands respect, yet his investigation is suspect unless it can be shown to be thorough, wide-open and unrestrained. No suggestion of cover-up should be permitted by the United Nations in what should be a rigorous effort to protect the organization’s good name.
Shortly, the United Nations will be facing the crisis of Iran pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran has been identified by President Bush as a member of the “axis of evil,” a rogue regime unabashed in its support of terrorism against Israel and against the United States. If the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency does not produce a fully verifiable methodology to ensure the world that Iran will not secretly enrich uranium to weapons grade, the Bush administration is certain to take a challenge to the Security Council early in 2005. If the United Nations simply circles the wagons in defense of Iran, the erosion of confidence in the United Nations expressed by the American right is certain to grow.
The American public is not yet ready to conclude that the valuable New York City real estate occupied by the United Nations would be more useful if it were turned into a parking lot, but rumblings of that nature are growing in intensity. President Bush has clearly announced to the world that he will not rely on an international permission slip to protect the vital security interests of the United States.
The United Nations should be very careful not to overplay its hand by making light of the Oil-For-Food scandal. Yes, President Bush has diplomatically expressed confidence in Kofi Annan, as there is yet no compelling proof that Kofi Annan was himself guilty of profiting personally in the abundant oil billions being served up by Saddam Hussein. But a complicated game of positioning is well in play.
Those officials in charge at the United Nations should not join the Democratic Party in assuming that the “red state majority” that re-elected President Bush is simply stupid. The American public may well be more discerning that many international diplomats might suspect. The Oil-For-Food crisis casts a dark cloud over the United Nations, just as it raises questions about the efficacy of Secretary-General Annan’s stewardship.
If the United Nations does not proceed carefully, the United Nations itself end up establishing the case that the organization does not assist the United States in meeting the national security challenges we face today. Moreover, if Americans end up concluding over the next few months that the United Nations has actually become anti-American as charged, the move to abandon the United Nations will gain a national momentum that may be hard to reverse.