September’s United Nations summit confirmed what many conservatives have long believed: the scandal-ridden UN cannot reform itself—and cannot effectively legitimize the use of force needed to fight

To a war-weary world, the UN seemed at its 1945 founding to be mankind’s best hope to prevent further conflict. Yet the notion that the UN could become the central forum for the management of world affairs was quixotic from the start: only if the U.S.-Soviet alliance held firm would such a prospect even be conceivable, and by 1945 that alliance was already disintegrating. The Soviets would use their Security Council veto repeatedly to thwart Western interests, rendering the UN incapable of decisive action. In the Korean War and the first Gulf War—two major tests of the Security Council as a guarantor of collective security—the UN was an afterthought. In both conflicts, the United States and Britain dispatched military forces to counter aggression and only later sought UN approval. In 2003, during the second Iraq crisis, the UN spectacularly flinched from providing even that.

As Sir Brian Urquhart, a UN founding father, came to see, the organization’s management structure makes it unworkable. With a secretary-general who lacks executive authority sitting atop a sprawling secretariat full of overlapping, incompetent, patronage-ridden bureaucracies, sclerosis is unavoidable. Since a handful of rich Western nations pay the bills, moreover, most member countries have no vested interest in seeing funds spent properly: glad-handed waste has been massive. Adding to the mess, the UN created over time
almost 100 agencies, special funds, and commissions—semi-independent fiefdoms outside the
secretary-general’s control.

The UN security record in recent years is indefensible. Its failure to stop atrocities in Somalia, the moral and military debacle in Bosnia, the egregious human rights violations that UN “peacekeepers” committed in the Congo—all have sunk its credibility. And all that is before coming to Paul Volcker’s inquiry into the Iraq Oil-for-Food program. As Volcker has proven, the initiative soon degenerated into a multibillion-dollar scam, marked by sordid corruption and a massive failure of leadership by the secretary-general and his management team, one of whom was making $150,000 a year illegally from the program. Yet the UN summit failed to adopt the reforms needed to prevent future scandals of this kind.

Worse still from a collective security standpoint was the summit’s failure to agree on a clear definition of terrorism. You would like to think that after the al-Qaida attacks on New York, Madrid, and London, the mass murder of children in Beslan, Russia, and the continuing carnage in Israel and Iraq, the summit could have come up with such a definition. The secretary-general
offered a good one: “[A]ny action is terrorism if
it is intended to cause death or bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, with the purpose of intimidating a population, or compelling a government or an international organization to do something.” Intense opposition from Muslim states, however, prevented it from being accepted. For the Islamic states, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter; the killing and maiming
of innocent civilians remain part of the “right” to resist “occupation” and part of “legitimate” wars
of liberation. Though the final declaration featured a ringing denunciation of terrorism, it left Islamic leaders free to claim that suicide bombings in Israel or Iraq aren’t terrorism. Of course, these are the same Islamic states that since 1970 have ensured that the UN General Assembly has taken a position that legitimizes terrorism. They have also mounted a long-standing and grotesque
campaign against Israel’s right to self-defense.

Maybe the tough-minded new U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, can bang together enough heads in Turtle Bay to get meaningful reforms. But if not, there is an alternative source of legitimacy, outside the UN, that the Bush administration might consider. The administration could take the lead in creating an independent, treaty-based organization, modeled on NATO, that could establish rules governing the use of force against terrorism. Such an alliance would be perfectly legitimate in international law, under Chapter VIII, Article 53 of the UN Charter, so long as its mission was to safeguard the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. Its threat to use force would be more credible and could thwart terrorist attacks by preemptive action where necessary—something the UN will never do.


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