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New York Diarist: United We Fall

Not since that lofty spiritualist Dag Hammarskjold has there been a U. N. secretary-general whom the worthy have so taken to their bosoms. A great moral aura attaches to Kofi Annan, even though--as a lesser U.N. official in both bloody Bosnia and bloodier Rwanda--he kept armed multinational forces under his command from impeding the macabre work of mass murderers. But, at the Secretariat, the salient comparisons are to ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim. So it is not surprising that Annan considers himself the embodiment of all that is virtuous in world affairs. Hammarskjold claimed to "represent the detached element in the international life of the peoples." Annan is not so abstract, but he does annex to his person the interests of everyone. Speaking for "the international community as a whole," he admonishes the United States and its allies that "there is no substitute for the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations Security Council." And so he does not want the American- and British- led alliance to remove Saddam Hussein unless the French, Germans, and Russians assent.

IT'S A STRANGE bunch on which to rely for ethical validation. These are the same governments, after all, that for years conspired with Saddam to get the Security Council to abrogate its sanctions against his regime--that is, to rescue him from the legal consequences of the Gulf war formulated by the Security Council itself. And it was their companies that provided Saddam with perilous chemicals, biologics, and maybe even nuclear know-how. It is an intellectual scam for the Security Council and the secretary-general to charge the United States with endangering the United Nations when it is they, through their years of appeasement, who have made the world organization an object of justifiable ridicule.

THERE IS A historical resonance here. The United States is also blamed for the collapse of the League of Nations because the Senate refused to ratify Woodrow Wilson's utopian treaty that would have made America a member. But what really destroyed the League was France and Great Britain's failure to resist its aggressor members--Germany, Italy, and Japan. The League did not move when Italy invaded Abyssinia; it hardly reacted when Japan invaded Manchuria; it did not so much as twitch when the treaties guaranteeing the rights of minorities in Slavic and Baltic states were violated. Great Britain finally began to rearm after the Nazis remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936. France, by contrast, never mobilized enough to be in a position to fight at all. Another member of the League, the Soviet Union, negotiated a nonaggression pact with Germany. Belgium declared "absolute neutrality," to no avail. When the Nazis invaded his country, it took King Leopold maybe 20 minutes to surrender. Looking back, it is now clear that the European powers should have combined to deter, or destroy, Hitler long before he invaded Poland and plunged the continent into war. And yet, in Paris and Brussels and Berlin, they have not learned their lessons. By now, Saddam has committed more brutalities against his own population and against minimal world order than Hitler had by, let's say, 1937. Who would still argue today that Europe's response to the Nazis at that date was adequate? Maybe Dominique de Villepin.

I GREW UP with such multilateralist illusions. In my New York City public school, the U.N. flag flew alongside the Stars and Stripes. What was the United Nations? We all knew the answer: "the last best hope for peace." That's what Eleanor Roosevelt said, too. But that was not to be its destiny. In the developing world, its political mission became guaranteeing the unnatural borders and rapacious elites bequeathed by the colonial powers. Thus, when the mostly Christian Ibos of Biafra seceded from mostly Muslim Nigeria and the federal government launched a war of arms and starvation, the United Nations would not even recognize that the conflict had produced refugees. There are never refugees within the borders of a member state because that would undercut the sacred idea of territorial integrity. Again, there are historical lessons. One argument against war with Iraq is that it might alter the frontiers of what is, after all, a geographic contrivance of the European powers. Redrawing Iraq's borders would not be an entirely happy endeavor, but at the United Nations it is deemed the worst of all possible outcomes--worse than Saddam's domestic slaughter, worse than his rush toward nuclear capacity, worse than his menacing of the region.

THE UNITED NATIONS is a Rube Goldberg contraption. Every state has an equal vote in the General Assembly--India and Bhutan, Brazil and the Comoros Islands. This is the parliament of nations, where lopsided majorities make decisions of absolutely no consequence. Like the U.S. Congress, the General Assembly has committees (in Turtle Bay they call them commissions). The Commission on Human Rights is chaired by Libya. This is not a joke. But it is the Security Council before which really important matters are brought, and the real power resides in its five permanent members, each with the absolute right to veto anything. France is a permanent member because a stiff-necked Charles de Gaulle persuaded a slightly addled Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who wanted him as an ally against Stalin, to pretend that the French seriously fought the Nazis and, thus, were entitled to shape the new world order. France's postwar power and influence were, in truth, built on the blood and bones of the American men buried in Normandy. And today, in waging his public battle against the British government and ours at the United Nations, Jacques Chirac has already forfeited France's other great pretension: its role as the leading European interlocutor in the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. After the humiliation the French dealt Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations last week, George W. Bush would be mad even to feign listening to Chirac's thoughts. In any case, the European Union hasn't had sway with Israel for decades, and it hasn't even tried to influence the Palestinians. After this next Gulf war, it will be left to Washington, as it always is, to tease out some improvements west of the Jordan.

SO LET FRANCE veto whatever resolution Great Britain and the United States present to the Security Council. Then even Kofi Annan will have to admit that it was not the Americans who brought the United Nations to its most humiliating nadir. France will have cast the vote that finally clarifies its own powerlessness. And the United Nations will linger on but, with time and the development of new alliances among responsible states, go the way of the League. The death of another illusion.