Within the broader antiwar movement in the United States, more moderate voices have raised the idea of substituting United Nations troops for the Anglo-American occupation forces in Iraq. This gesture supposedly would constitute a blow against the “unilateralism” that inspired the war and would express a more “multilateral” foreign policy that supposedly is a hallmark of the Democratic Party.
Even somebody as principled in his opposition to U.S. foreign policy as Ralph Nader endorsed this idea in calling for an international peace-keeping force drawn from neutral and Islamic nations under the auspices of the United Nations that would “replace all US troops and civilian military contractors doing many jobs the Army used to do more efficiently.”1
There was support for United Nations intervention from even more radical quarters in Australia. While it is undoubtedly one of the more principled and far-sighted groups on the far left, the Democratic Socialist Party had no problems calling for U.N. intervention in East Timor. On September 6, 1999, they declared that:
The Democratic Socialist Party calls on all supporters of democracy to mobilise to demand that the Australian government insist that the United Nations authorise the immediate dispatch of Australian troops to East Timor. The task of these troops must be to assist the East Timorese resistance forces to stop the current bloodbath being organised by the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) and police (Polri). This can only be achieved through the disarming of the pro-Jakarta terror gangs. In addition, these troops must supervise the rapid withdrawal of all Indonesian military and police personnel from East Timor so as to enable the East Timorese to take full control of their nation’s affairs.2
Looking back at the history of our movement, there is scant evidence for confidence in earlier international “peace-keeping” bodies. In an October 15, 1920 speech, Lenin spoke derisively of the League of Nations, which had demanded that the Red Army cease its offensive against counter-revolutionary Polish troops and enter into peace negotiations: “To this proposal we replied that we recognised no League of Nations, since we had seen its insignificance and the disregard that even its members had for its decisions.”3 He added that it had become plain “that the League of Nations was non-existent, that the alliance of the capitalist powers is sheer fraud, and that in actual fact it is an alliance of robbers, each trying to snatch something from the others.” This allusion to an alliance of robbers has been alternatively translated as a “den of thieves,” the more famous citation.
One major difference between the League of Nations and the United Nations was the presence of the Soviet Union. Additionally, the inclusion of postcolonial states in the General Assembly and their frequently courageous and principled stands give the U.N. a certain cachet that the League of Nations lacked. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, and the continuing inability of the General Assembly to actually make an impact on policies drawn up in the far more powerful Security Council, there should be no lingering illusions in the U.N.’s ability to act on behalf of peace and social justice—no should there have been when the organization was born, for that matter.
When the United Nations was created, the overwhelming preoccupation of the founders was to minimize challenges to the World War Two victors, who feared imperialist rivalries of the sort that had led to two costly world wars. The Soviet Union had its own interests at heart, which revolved around the need to create a barrier between European capitalist powers and its own project of “building socialism.” Initially, Stalin did not really see the need for a U.N. but hoped that a coalition of the U.S., Great Britain and the U.S.S.R. could negotiate conflicts and divide up spheres of influence between themselves as they had already at Yalta and Potsdam.
In conventional historical accounts, Franklin Roosevelt is seen as the thoroughgoing Wilsonian “multilateralist” who believed that the U.N. could succeed where the League of Nations had failed. Such idealist preening was of course bolstered by his allies in the Communist Party who had high hopes in 1945 that the wartime alliance would continue into the next century, if not forever. For Communist Party leader Earl Browder, the war was a fight between “a slave world and a free world.” He stated, “Just as the United States could not remain half slave and half free in 1862, so in 1942 the world must make its decision for a complete victory one way or the other.” Somehow, it must have escaped his attention that Black Americans served in segregated companies in the army and lacked the right to vote in the deep south.
Gabriel Kolko’s “The Politics of War,” a classic “revisionist” study of U.S. foreign policy, debunks the notion of American altruism motivating the creation of the United Nations. He paints a picture of top American diplomats conspiring to turn the proposed organization into a tool of its foreign policy objectives. By putting forward a “globalist” perspective, the United States would be able to project power across the world in the name of peace-keeping while at the same time retaining its own spheres of influence.
This consisted at the outset of islands seized from the Japanese and its traditional domination of Latin America through the Monroe Doctrine and the more recent “Good Neighbor” policy. Winston Churchill was amenable to all this, as long as British interests were not threatened: “If the Americans want to take Japanese islands which they have conquered, let them do so with our blessing and any form of words that may be agreeable to them. But ‘Hands Off the British Empire’ is our maxim.”
In a phone conversation between Henry Stimson, FDR’s Secretary of War and his undersecretary John McCloy that is contained in Stimson’s papers at Yale University, we get a flavor for the power politics hidden beneath the surface. (Dumbarton Oaks, referred to below frequently, was the site of the founding conference of the U.N.):
Stimson: Then there is this side. I think both those are important. Russia will, consider this, Russia will probably act that way anyhow no matter what the Dumbarton Oaks does…
McCloy: Yes. But I think you will have a great outcry of public opinion in the country against such a broadening of the regional arrangement. They will say that the Security Council and the World Organization has been defeated. And I’m not at all sure that it wouldn’t be…
McCloy: The proponents of Dumbarton Oaks say ‘Well, we will be free to act if there is any aggression against this continent.’ We certainly will be free to send, as Hay did, send the fleet down there in spite of this provision because that comes under self-defense and the aggressor would be acting inconsistent with the provisions of the Charter itself if he set in motion the aggression against this continent…
Secretary: Well I think that’s probably true and that may be a good reason for not insisting on the second thing; as for the first one, which may be very important in moderate interventions in this country, we have been a pretty active old Uncle Sam in stopping things, and I think we ought to continue to be. I think you ought to be able to prevent Russia from using that thing in her parallel, alleged parallel position. It isn’t parallel to it. She’s not such an overwhelmingly gigantic power from the ones which she’s probably going to make a row about as we are here and on the other hand our fussing around among those little fellow[s] there doesn’t upset any balance in Europe at all. That’s the main answer. It doesn’t upset any balance there where she may upset a balance that affects us. That’s the difference. I think I would stand on that. I think you ought to maintain that, although it seems to be a little thing, it’s been a pretty well developed thing and I think you can say that it isn’t parallel to what she threatens to do.
Additional confirmation of the U.S.’s Machiavellianism can be found in Peter Gowan’s 2003 New Left Review article titled appropriately enough “US: UN”. This is based on his reading of Stephen Schlesinger’s “Act of Creation” and Robert Hilderbrand’s “Dumbarton Oaks: the Origins of the United Nations,” two mainstream, scholarly accounts, as well as other material. Gowan sums up Roosevelt’s intentions:
Roosevelt, though not immune to self-deception himself—he too vaguely believed that good relations between Moscow and Washington could continue after the war, if not on an equal footing—had altogether wider horizons. American power was global, not regional, and required an institutional framework to fit it. The UN that Stalin allowed him to construct in due course fulfilled the original Soviet fears. Over the next half century, it is difficult to think of a single material benefit the USSR derived from the institution in which, to adapt Hilderbrand’s phrase, the Soviets soon “found themselves feeling increasingly isolated and vulnerable, truly the black sheep in the family of nations”.4
Words such as “isolated” and “vulnerable” certainly describe the status of North Korea, one of the Kremlin’s main allies as it would be confronted by the onslaught of a bloody United Nations backed intervention not five years after its formation.
On June 26, 1950, the U.S. presented a resolution condemning “North Korean aggression” in terms that would reappear again in the wars against Iraq. A civil war was magically transformed into an invasion by one country against the other, just as it was in Vietnam as well. Although many liberal “doves” had little trouble understanding the internal character of the Vietnam conflict, they failed to see Iraq-Kuwait from the same perspective. Modern day Kuwait was established in 1923 by waving the same colonial wand that produced Iraq. If self-determination had been allowed back then, Iraq’s borders would have included Kuwait. Although this might have seen logical to somebody like Saddam Hussein, it failed to pass muster in “peace-loving” circles.
North Korea, another pariah state, fell victim to the same sort of hypocrisy in 1950. When the war broke out, it was besides the point to ask ‘who attacked first,’ just as was the case with the American civil war when Fort Sumter was fired upon. It was the business of Americans to settle their conflict, just as it should have been Korean’s whose 38th parallel boundary was an artificial legacy of WWII.
By a vote of 46-6, the U.N. Security Council refused to hear the North Korean side of the story. Wasting no time, President Truman sent the navy and air force into action, thus presenting the U.N. with a fait accompli. It was no surprise that the U.N. would be favorably disposed to U.S. goals. Trygve Lie, the Norwegian Secretary-General, was a knee-jerk anti-Communist who received advice from the U.S. State Department about removing “subversives” from the U.N. staff.
The U.S.S.R., never as adept at diplomatic power politics as its former ally, was not on hand to veto the Security Council resolution blessing the war on North Korea. It was boycotting the organization over its refusal to seat Mao’s China.
Martin Hart-Landsberg sums up the close collaboration between the U.S. and the U.N. as follows:
Three days after the UN passed its second resolution, Truman upped the ante. He ordered the bombing of specific targets in North Korea, a naval blockade of the entire Korean coast, and use of U.S. ground troops. The UN followed on July 7, passing another resolution recommending that “all Members providing military forces and other assistance . . . make such forces and other assistance available to a unified command under the United States.” It also called upon the United States to “designate the commander of such forces.” Amazingly, the UN placed all member country forces under U.S. control without requiring accountability. In other words, the United States was given the freedom to fight the war unaccountable to any other member nation, clothed in the principles and ideals the United Nations claimed to represent.
Truman chose General Douglas MacArthur to head the unified command. Along with the United States, fifteen nations including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Columbia, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, the Republic of South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and the United Kingdom provided soldiers. The United States, however, provided most of the troops and paid most of the bills. It was a U.S. show wrapped in a UN flag.5
One might say that the Korean War was the first exercise in the kind of “multilateralism” that some liberals are anxious to reinstitute.
The Korean War consolidated an anti-communist beachhead in East Asia that would serve future interventions well, including in Vietnam. In a similar fashion, U.S. and U.N. collaborated to overturn Patrice Lumumba’s government in the Congo in 1960. Mobutu, his successor, was a willing tool of U.S. foreign policy, and worked with apartheid South Africa to destroy revolutionary movements throughout the continent.
As was the case in the Korean War, the Secretary-General of the U.N. in 1960 was a Scandinavian and an anti-communist. Dag Hammarskjold, a Swede, has an ill-deserved reputation as a friend of peace. His death in an airplane crash in the Congo (that some blame on the CIA and MI5) in 1961 prompted his fellow Swedes to posthumously award him the Nobel Peace prize that year.
For an alternative interpretation, one might turn to the aptly titled “The Congo Betrayal: The U.N.-U.S. and Lumumba” by D. Katete Orwa.6 Orwa lays out in agonizing detail how Hammarskjold stabbed the Congolese peoples’ hope for freedom and independence in the back.
Unfortunately, Lumumba made the mistake of inviting the U.N. to begin with. Although he was a principled nationalist, he had apparently never absorbed the analysis of the U.N. that had traditionally been presented in the Marxist movement outside of Stalinist circles. When the mineral-rich Katanga province, led by Moise Tshombe with backing by Belgian troops, seceded from the Congo, Lumumba asked for U.N. help in resisting the rebel troops. In other words, he expected the U.N. to come to the aid of a newly independent state, just as the charter promised.
Gunnar Jahn, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, put it somewhat disingenuously in his 1961 speech honoring Hammarskjold:
This form of military aid did not meet the expectations of the Congo government, which had clearly envisaged the expulsion of Belgian troops by UN forces; whereas the UN’s action was taken on the assumption that Belgium would comply with the order of the Security Council and withdraw her troops from the Congo.
Of course, the U.N. had no trouble putting its imprimatur on a U.S. war against Iraq when it occupied Kuwait. The decision to expel Iraqi troops and leave Belgian troops in place can only be explained in terms of geopolitical realities. When Lumumba insisted that the Congolese people have the right to exploit their own mineral resources for the benefit of the nation, he became enemy number one on Wall Street and in Washington, D.C. The U.S. and its European allies had decided that Lumumba was a threat to the capitalist status quo in Africa and adjusted its Wilsonian principles accordingly.
African-American Ralph Bunche was Under Secretary-General of the United Nations at the time and the Condoleeza Rice of his time. At a UCLA conference on Bunche last year, Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, professor emeritus of African studies at Howard University in Washington, DC, and a former president of the African Studies Association of the United States, told the gathering:
Bunche arrived with negative attitudes toward Lumumba, negative toward all radical nationalists including Nasser and Nkrumah. The Belgians briefed Bunche negatively about Lumumba. He had won a plurality in elections but was not the first choice of Belgians, who backed Kasavubu, whose party had only 12 seats compared to more than 30 for Lumumba’s party. Once Lumumba became prime minister he agreed to help Kasavubu as titular head of state. The first sign of division came on June 30, 1960, with Lumumba’s independence day speech against Belgian colonialism, now a classic speech.7
While the main challenge to Lumumba came from the CIA and Belgian troops, the U.N. played a crucial role as well. By providing de facto diplomatic cover for the efforts to overthrow Lumumba, the U.N. was a key element in a well-orchestrated plan. Since Lumumba was not interested in affiliating with the Soviet bloc, he was far more vulnerable than Fidel Castro, who was facing similar obstacles.
After growing increasingly frustrated with U.N. inaction, Lumumba urged that an Afro-Asian observation team take charge on the ground. He also took exception to Swedish troops operating in the Congo under the U.N. mandate since that country was “known to have special affinities with the Belgian royal family.” A letter made public to Hammarskjold pressing these demands prompted critics to conclude that he had become “paranoic,” which leads one to cite perhaps the only sensible words to come out of Henry Kissinger’s mouth: “Even a paranoid can have enemies.”
As the plotters began finalizing their coup against Lumumba, U.N. help was critical, as Orwa points out:
Cordier [a U.N. diplomat assigned to the Congo] then took steps which prevented Lumumba from wresting power from Kasavubu and Mobutu. First, he ordered United Nations troops in Leopoldville to occupy the radio stations; then on September 6, UN technicians rendered it inoperable. UN forces also closed all airports to prevent the return of General Lundula and Cleophas Kamitatu, the President of Leopoldville, to the capital bringing with them troops loyal to Lumumba. This action was extremely important, because General Lundula would have won the allegiance of most of the 4,000 soldiers garrisoned in Leopoldville while Kamitatu would have helped rally the support of the civilian population in the area. Finally, on September 10, two days after Cordier left for New York and five days after Dayal’s arrival, Major-General Ben Hammon Kettani, Deputy Supreme Commander of UN Force, and Mobutu disbursed money to the contingents in Leopoldville. Mobutu claimed credit for the payment “to build his prestige among troops.” Dayal, who was at the scene, wrote that Mobutu had little following among the 4,000 ANC soldiers and that the payment influenced their behaviour in critical days that followed.
Shortly after an antiwar movement began to take shape prior to the invasion of Iraq, some “moderates” initiated “Win Without War” as an alternative to ANSWER and other more radical formations. In a Nation Magazine article, David Corn put it this way:
Cortright, who was executive director of SANE from 1977 to 1987 (when it was the largest peace organization in the United States) and his colleagues in Washington were looking to assemble an opposition that would possess wider appeal, that would press a message that extends beyond a no-to-war demand and endorses an alternative to military action.
The coalition’s central demand is, let the UN and its weapons inspectors do their jobs. But what if Saddam thwarts the inspectors or they find he has ready-to-go weapons of mass destruction? Would Win Without War back a UN-sanctioned military response? Elements of the coalition are pacifists, according to Cortright; most are not: “There might be circumstances where some of our groups would support [military action against Iraq], such as if there were explicit authorization from the UN Security Council.” Greenwald notes that the artists’ statement “leaves open the possibility of a multilateral attack. We felt it was premature to get into that. The biggest point of agreement among the signers is that the United States should follow the law, follow the Security Council.”8
Cortright had little disagreement with U.S. aims in the region, only how to achieve them. As a believer in the necessity for sanctions, he simply thought that there were more effective ways to bend Iraq to the American will than an invasion.
In a November 2001 article in the Nation Magazine titled “A Hard Look at Iraq Sanctions,” Cortright attacked Bush’s foreign policy from the vantage point of his own dovish brand of imperialism wrapped in the U.N.’s blue flag.
He starts off by gainsaying the findings of the Lancet to the effect that the sanctions had resulted in the death of 567,000 Iraqi children. When Madeleine Albright was confronted by this figure, she replied, “The price is worth it.” Drawing upon critics of the Lancet study, Cortright is persuaded that the number is only 350,000! After reviewing the suffering that the Iraqi people have to endure as a result of the sanctions, he concludes by lecturing the peace movement about the need to stay the course: “It is also important, peace and human rights groups surely would agree, to maintain military sanctions until Iraq complies fully with the UN disarmament mandate and permits a final round of weapons inspection.”9
While Cortright’s dismissal of the Lancet findings is less obnoxious than Christopher Hitchens’s, it does share the same sort of ‘revisionist’ animosity towards impeccable sources. In his debate with George Galloway, Hitchens called the most recent Lancet report blaming the invasion and occupation for 100,000 additional Iraqi deaths a “crazed fabrication.” If only Cortright would use such language, we would have an easier time figuring out who our enemies are.
The notion that such sanctions were compatible with lofty notions of international peace-keeping were fairly well demolished by Institute for Policy Studies Fellow Phyllis Bennis, who writes quite capably about the U.N. from a left perspective despite being seduced by the idea that it can somehow be “democratized.”
In “Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s U.N.”, she refers to the sanctions against Iraq as the “Not-Quite Warfare.” These sanctions were supposedly put into place to make sure that Iraq got rid of its weapons of mass destruction. She points out that “By October 7, 1994, according to the report issued that day by the UN’s own Special Commission investigating Iraqi weapons systems (UNSCOM), all those stipulations had been at least minimally met.” However, the report did not result in the lifting of the oil embargo, which had much more to do with destroying the Iraqi economy than protecting the world from a dictator bent on nuclear conflagration. Even Iraq’s acceptance of the U.N. determined border of Kuwait failed to convince the Security Council to lift the ban.
When Rolf Ekeus, the U.N. official in charge of overseeing the destruction of WMD’s in Iraq, filed a report in 1994 challenging CIA claims that there were such weapons and assuring the U.N. that “if Iraq extends…the same level of cooperation that it has in the past…there can be cause for optimism.” This did not assuage a U.S. dominated Security Council that included a by now neoliberal former Soviet Union. Under instructions from President Clinton, U.S. diplomats insisted that Iraq was still defying U.N. inspectors just as they would under Bush. No wonder Bush has repeatedly defended his atrocious policies by simply stating that he is continuing what previous administrations have done.
On August 19, 2003, just 5 months after the invasion of Iraq, a huge bomb destroyed U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. Among the killed was U.N. Special Representative Sérgio Vieira de Mello. His death was viewed in liberal circles as a symptom of the particularly bloodthirsty character of the Iraqi resistance. Perhaps the men and women who set off the bomb might have been seeking revenge for the sanctions-induced death of hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and their children. Or, perhaps, they had a visceral hatred for outside “peacekeeping” agencies meddling into Iraqi affairs on behalf of U.S. imperialism. Whatever the motivation, it removed from the scene a potentially useful tool for a more “multilateral” American administration headed by somebody like John Kerry or Hillary Clinton.
By all evidence, de Mello was playing the same sort of role that Hammarskjold had played before him. Just a month before his death, the U.N. was all set to endorse Paul Bremer’s Governing Council, an outfit that Kofi Annan described as “a broadly representative partner with whom the United Nations and the international community at large can engage.” (Washington Post, July 20, 2003) The Washington Post also reported that de Mello had met with President Bush just 4 months earlier along with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. The U.N. diplomat “had been the Bush administration’s first choice for the job.”
One can understand why. De Mello had just the kind of background that was needed to provide the proper progressive sheen on a sordid colonial operation such as the kind that groundwork was being laid for in Iraq. He had served as top U.N. representative in “liberated” East Timor. His friend Peter Galbraith, who was a fellow U.N. overseer of the affairs of the East Timorese people and who has recently written articles in the New York Review advocating the break-up of Iraq along the lines of Yugoslavia where he served as U.S. Ambassador to the secessionist Croatia, described de Mello’s role in East Timor as follows: He “had absolute power, it was the most comprehensive mandate” ever granted to such a special representative. “Full legislative, executive and judicial authority was invested in him.” (N.Y. Times, May 24, 2003)
Obviously de Mello and Galbraith knew what had to be done in East Timor:
Australia and East Timor are edging towards agreement on a critical new treaty to govern the Timor Gap, paving the way for development of the substantial gas deposits in the resource-rich waters that divide the two neighbours.
Speedy conclusion of the treaty is vital for East Timor – which in late 1999 voted to secede from Indonesia – because revenues from the developments will provide the impoverished new state with its main source of income.
Based on exploration to date, the Timor Gap fields contain 500m barrels of oil equivalent, worth some USDollars 17bn (Pounds 12bn) at today’s prices.
East Timor has a budget this year of USDollars 60m, is entirely reliant on foreign aid and is being run by a United Nations-led transition government (Untaet) ahead of elections for a national assembly due later this year.
Negotiations on a new treaty began eight months ago and there has been concern among oil companies working in the region over delays in reaching agreement. But Peter Galbraith, Untaet minister for political affairs and East Timor’s chief negotiator in the talks, said in an interview yesterday there had been “substantial progress” in the negotiations.10
This would appear to be the same sort of scenario that was planned for Iraq until an insurgency broke out. Under the guise of “humanitarianism,” a new colonial enterprise would be put in place to drain precious mineral wealth from the country just as was the case in East Timor.
On December 6, 2002, the World Socialist website reported on a burgeoning movement in East Timor that while lacking the firepower of the Iraqi insurgency seems bred by the same sort of resentments:
At least two people have been killed and more than 20 injured in clashes with police and soldiers during two days of protests and rioting by students and unemployed youth in the East Timorese capital of Dili. The situation remains tense after the government imposed an overnight curfew on Wednesday and called for UN troops to help police guard key buildings and patrol the city’s streets. Most shops and businesses, as well as the university and high schools, were closed yesterday.
Interior Affairs Minister Rogerio Lobato baldly asserted that the protests were “an orchestrated manoeuvre to topple the government”. He and other officials alleged that the CDP-RDTL (Popular Defence Committee—Democratic Republic of East Timor) was behind the rioting. The group, which opposes the UN presence and calls for full independence for East Timor, has organised a number of anti-government protests…
The government is clearly looking for a scapegoat to deflect attention from the failure of their own policies. There is a huge social divide between a tiny elite of government officials, businessmen, foreign officials, aid workers and troops and the vast majority of the population, most of whom are unemployed and living below the poverty line.
Young people, in particular, are angry that their prospects for an education and a job are extremely small. Among the businesses ransacked on Wednesday was the Australian-owned “Hello Mister” supermarket, which specialises in supplying imported goods to UN and other foreign workers. While UN troops and officials are paid hefty living allowances of $US100 a day, most East Timorese are struggling to survive from day to day. The few who have jobs earn an average of about $6 a week.
Estimates of the jobless rate vary between 70 and 80 percent. Moreover, it has worsened since East Timor formally declared independence on May 20, as the number of UN personnel has been reduced. The difficulties facing villagers in rural areas have been compounded by a severe drought. Even with the official poverty rate set at just US 50 cents a day, a UN survey last year found that 60 percent of people in rural areas were living in poverty. Education and health services are rudimentary.
Many East Timorese have begun to feel betrayed as the promises that accompanied the Australian-led UN military intervention into East Timor have failed to materialise. Clearly nervous about the situation, Australian Prime Minister John Howard phoned his counterpart in Dili to pledge financial assistance—to bolster the police and judiciary, not to alleviate the underlying social crisis.11
The pattern should be obvious by this point. The evidence points to the U.N. as serving as a handmaiden to U.S. imperialism and its junior partners. Hopes for this outfit “democratizing” itself are as vain as hopes that capitalism can reform itself. While one can understand the yearning of the ordinary citizen of the planet for some sort of international agency that can mediate between conflicting nations and act as a tribune on behalf of the weak and the vulnerable, the United Nations is not such an organization and—more importantly—was never intended as such.
5. “Korea: Division, Reunification, and U.S. Foreign Policy”, Monthly Review Press, 1998, pp. 115-116
6. Kenya Literature Bureau, 1985
10. Financial Times (London), May 17, 2001