The United Nations has had a terrible year in Iraq. First it was marginalized by the misconceived unilateralism of the Bush White House. Then it was all but driven out of the country by the deliberate terrorist targeting of relief agencies. Yet with Washington now eager to get out of the occupation business and move more quickly toward restoring Iraq’s sovereignty, it may become easier to revitalize the U. N. ‘s role. By contrast to this summary, one is reminded of the frequent comment by UN Secretaries General that the letters “SG” stand not only for Secretary General, but also for Scapegoat.
The UN’s actual record and role in Iraq during the past year have been somewhere between “terrible” and that of a scapegoat, and it is worth examining how the UN was perceived by the U. S. press during that critical period, since U. S. support for the UN is both influenced by, and reflected in, the U. S. press. And since the U. S. is likely to want to use the UN at some point in the future, a realistic analysis of the UN’s capabilities and performance will better allow it to play a constructive role in international affairs.
Besides, the UN cannot be effective without U. S. support. As Secretary General Kofi Annan remarked in a speech at the College of William and Mary, on February 8, 2003: “When there is strong United States leadership, exercised through patient diplomatic persuasion and coalition-building, the United Nations is successful – and the United States is successful. ” During the past year, the U. S. press has been a watchdog, a critic, and a mirror of U. S. attitudes toward the war in Iraq. In this paper, I shall try to illustrate these three dimensions through a selective analysis of articles in major American publications.
On occasion, I shall try to contrast attitudes in American publications with those in foreign publications. One important point I want to make at the start is that when the UN is mentioned in the press, it can be perceived in any one of three ways. Too often those ways are merged, confused, or deliberately distorted. First and foremost, the UN is its member states; it is not a world government. In the New York Times editorial quoted above, the first reference to the UN is misleading. Since the UN is its member states, if the UN was marginalized, then what was actually marginalized, or ignored, was the international community.
In other words, Washington acted almost unilaterally in going to war with Iraq. It ignored the wishes of the majority of governments in the world. To say this is not to make a moral judgment. It is simply to clarify what is meant by “the UN” in the above citation. The second way the UN is referred in the press is as the granddaddy of the UN family, which includes several specialized agencies, such as UNHCR, UNICEF, FAO, IAEA, UNESCO, etc. In the Times editorial above, the second reference (“relief agencies”) is to specialized organizations in the UN family, most specifically UNHCR.
The third face of the UN is that of the secretariat, headed by the Secretary General, which consists of more than 9,000 employees worldwide. The UN secretariat, through the Secretary General, is at the behest of the Security Council, the General Assembly, or any other body of the United Nations that demands its services. If the Security Council requests the Secretary-General to send a team of mediators or a team of weapons experts to Iraq, for example, then the SG takes people from the Secretariat to do the job or he recruits foreign diplomats into the Secretariat to do the job.
The Secretary General may be called upon for any variety of reasons to help implement a decision of the Security Council. In recent past, he has been asked to send political officials, civilian affairs specialists, election officials, etc. to different parts of the world, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor, and Kosovo. He is duty bound to respond to the demands of the various legislative bodies of the UN. But the UN Secretary General is not the head of a world government; he is the head of an intergovernmental organization. Moreover, the UN has not a single permanent soldier.
All UN troops are on loan from member states. Thus, when UN troops are criticized for not taking effective action, the reason may be because the member states have not supplied sufficient troops, sufficient funds, or a strong enough mandate to get the job done. To be sure, there may be errors of judgment and performance by troops under the UN flag; but there can also be unrealistic expectations. Much of the misperception of the UN is because of the confusion regarding its three faces. Press that is critical of the UN usually exploits this confusion. * * * Leading up to the war
In a story during the period leading up the 2003 war in Iraq, Julia Preston in the New York Times, on 6 February 2003, notes that “France, with the support of Germany, proposed today to strengthen United Nations weapons inspections”. This reference to the United Nations clearly refers to a function of the UN secretariat, headed by the Secretary-General, who appoints the inspectors. The statements quoted in the article were made during a Security Council debate, and were clearly identified as such. Preston made clear in this article that the authority of the United Nations came through the wishes of its member states.
The next example, however, is troubling. Reporters are often at the mercy of their editors, who compose the headlines to a story. Preston’s article in the Times on February 15, 2003, remarks in its first paragraph that “Secretary of State Colin L. Powell faced deep resistance to his call for a Security Council decision to authorize military force. ” Although Preston made clear that it was the Council’s members who had the authority to decide to use force, and not some supra-national body called the United Nations, the headline to her story read: “Powell Calls for U. N. to Act on Iraq and Meets Deep Resistance.
Though headlines are frequently just a short and snappy way to refer to a story, in this case the brevity involved a distortion of the type discussed above. It was not the UN, an intergovernmental entity, that was being called upon to act. It was the member states of the Security Council that were being called upon to act. The headline could just as easily have read: “Secretary Powell calls on States (or governments) to act. While the distinction in this case may seem petty, this inaccuracy, when repeated time and again, has a way or confusing, in the minds of its readers, what the UN is and what it is not.
In journalism there are sins of commission and sins of omission. Avoidance of a story may reveal a bias, just as distortion may. On March 6, 2003, Norman Solomon, writing in the The Times (of London), quotes a story in the Observer four days earlier that “as part of its battle to win votes in favor or war against Iraq,” the U. S. government developed an “aggressive surveillance operation, which involves interception of the home and office telephones and the e-mails of U. N. Delegates. ” Mr. Solomon continued: “Several days after the ’embarrassing disclosure’, not a word about it had appeared in America’s supposed paper of record.
The New York Times – the single most influential media outlet in the United States – still had not printed anything about the story. How could that be? ” (The New York Times, at the time said it was checking into the story, and generally ignored it. ) Though failure to give prominence to a particular action that may or may not have occurred at the UN does not directly distort the image of the UN, one has to wonder if a similar allegation might have been more thoroughly investigated had it occurred at a different site, under different conditions.
Or was spying at the UN simply assumed, given the unworthy character of the organization? On March 7, 2003, Max Abrams, a Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, contributed a comment to the conservative National Review, that reveled in confusing the UN secretariat with its member states. “The 1990s fed the illusion of a moral United Nations, but only if measured in terms the founders had never envisaged, such as in peacekeeping and nation-building exercises.
On hard security questions, the UN remained – at best – a sideshow. It deferred to the world’s superpower, dragged its feel until disaster had already struck, or did nothing at all. This was the story of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda. ,” Abrams wrote. Putting aside for the moment Abrams’ highly skewed version of history, as well as his venomous opinion, what is interesting for the purposes of this paper is the way he tried to disguise the fact that it was the member states who decided, or did not decide, how to act in Bosnia, et. l.
And the U. S. occasionally voted along with the rest of the Security Council when it adopted resolutions on the above matters. When Britain and France refused to authorize NATO bombing of Bosnia until they removed their troops, for example, it was not “the UN” that lacked moral fiber. It was a practical decision by two members of the Security Council that had troops on the ground, and who felt obligated to protect or remove those troops before NATO began bombing.
The same blurring of distinctions between UN member states and the UN secretariat appears in another article the same day, in the same publication. This time the writer is Martin Hutchinson, a business and economic editor for United Press International, whose fulminations were originally published by UPI, and were reprinted. Mr. Hutchinson says: “Supra-national organizations such as the United Nations and before that the League of Nations exist in theory to deter the bad guys from malfeasance, and to provide legitimacy to the policing activities of the good guys.
In practice, they impede rather than assist both functions. ” To fortify his argument, Mr. Hutchinson remarks later in his piece: “the UN Charter was drafted by the U. S. State Department’s Soviet spy Alger Hiss. ” Once again, putting aside the truth or falsity of Mr. Hutchinson’s diatribe, the UN is not “supra-national;” it is international. And it does not exist “in theory;” it exists in reality as an organization of member states, which have national constituencies as well as international responsibilities.