Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1994 Issue


Invest Fully in the U.N., or Accept Chaos

By Randolph Ryan
Reporter, Special Projects,
The Boston Globe

Addicted to pushing deadlines to the limit, I write on the morning of the 20th of July. The wires confirm what I heard a few hours ago on "Nightline": The catastrophe of the season continues. People are dying in great numbers on the Rwandan border. They are doing this on television, so Washington is starting to react. There are signs now that U.S. troops may be sent to hand out food and expand a nearby airport in Goma, Zaire.

No doubt there will be a great humanitarian effort of the kind Americans do well. Once again as in Kurdistan, Bosnia, and Somalia, the nation's generosity will be on parade and many will agree that the United States is responding nobly to a distant tragedy. They will take pride in U.S. "leadership" within the United Nations. And will be relieved at a proviso announced yesterday at the Pentagon: There is to be no American role in peace keeping. No Americans will be placed in harm's way if the going gets down and dirty on the ground.

Ten years from now, when the first histories of the 1990s are written, it will be painful to be reminded of the ways that American ambivalence about pulling our oar in the United Nations made the world, quite predictably, a grimmer, more dangerous place. The Bush and Clinton administrations have paid lip service to the collective security idea represented by the blue helmets of the United Nations, but in important ways they have not paid their dues.

The United States, the world's richest nation, remains hundreds of millions of dollars in arrears in paying what we owe the U.N., this despite all the evidence that the demands on the U.N. are greater than ever, and despite the fact that we are counting on the U.N. to extract us from the no longer appealing world cop role. Moreover, Washington has not even deigned to notice what should have been its highest priority for the past five years: creating a U.N. intervention force--what Brian Urquhart calls a "U.N. legion"--capable of peace making at the early stages of a crisis, and of using force if necessary.

"Peace keeping" refers to sending a lightly armed U.N. force to patrol a border between adversaries who have agreed they need and want a linesman. The tedious but successful missions in Cyprus, the Golan Heights, and Kashmir are examples. But "peace making" is a different movie. It means stepping out on a potential killing field before it has deteriorated into a Bosnia or a Rwanda.

The time to put out fires is early, when there is less to extinguish and so much more to save. Yet here we are, halfway through the '90s, with Rwandas seemingly developing by the day, and the U.S. government has not even endorsed the creation of a fire brigade. In the Rwanda case, the Clinton administration purposefully blocked the deployment of the 5,500-troop U.N. brigade requested by U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in May, when it would have stopped the genocide and saved 300,000 to 400,000 lives.

We don't need to guess where the foot dragging about creation of an international police force is leading. The massive flights of refugees which we see in Rwanda are becoming almost the norm. Feeling immune because of our great moats, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, we have not noticed that the Haitian boat people are part of the same story.

To me, one of the most striking phenomena of the early 1990s has been the policy paralysis in Washington induced by the fear of taking casualties. Three years ago I thought it was certain that U.S. leaders would take a long view of the need to develop a peace-making capacity in the United Nations; would be able to distinguish in their own minds between defensible and indefensible interventions; and would be able to articulate the difference between running risks and spilling blood because of ideology and ego (as in Vietnam), and accepting risks for the important purpose of creating a credible international posse.

Instead, U.S. policy has been hog-tied by the hold-harmless formula first developed in the mid '80s by former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger and repeated more recently by former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. The Weinberger doctrine holds that U.S. ground forces may be used abroad only when interests are vital, aims are clear, firepower is decisive, and the exit at a certain date has been planned in advance. This was the timid, tunnel-vision thinking that led the Clinton administration to block a timely U.N. intervention in Rwanda.

The military came away from Vietnam saying "never again" to pointless casualties in an immoral undertaking, which is no more than the loyalty that the brass owes the troops. Powell has been right to insist that civilian buckaroos think hard in advance about means and ends and the likely costs of military involvement. But it's preposterous for the nation that has invested in the largest force in the world to be afraid to use it, and to habitually dump the dirty work on others.

U.S. leaders should be able to articulate with confidence why it was right a quarter-century ago to oppose the doomed and immoral invasion of Vietnam. They should also be able to explain why it is essential to pull our weight in the United Nations, running the same risks in, say Bosnia, as Canadians, Brits, and the French--and the Spanish and Ukrainians. There is no doubt that had this been done in 1992 it would have stopped the slow-motion destruction of Sarajevo, while greatly retarding the ethnic terror (though it would not necessarily have saved Bosnia as a "unitary" state).

Because the war in Bosnia was the first major crisis of the post Cold War; was in Europe, and hence accessible; and involved issues replicated in multi-ethnic states all across Eurasia and Africa, this was an important case to try hard to get right. It was vital to send a clear message about the international community's view of how multi-ethnic states should behave when they fall apart, and to express a clear view on terrorism against minorities.

Instead, feckless handling of the Bosnian crisis by both administrations sent a message to every potential perpetrator and victim of Bosnia-like violence around the world.

You, the perpetrator: Don't worry about the U.N. or the U.S. or the Western "world order." We are afraid. So pursue your agenda, accelerate plans for ethnic terror, go for it.

And you, prospective victims: Forget about the U.N. No one will be there to help you but yourselves. Get guns while you can.

Both groups got the message and are responding, giving the arms race (and the arms business) a new lease on life.

The lurches and swerves of U.S. policy in the drawn-out fiascos in Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti show that not only does Washington not want to be the world cop, it doesn't even want to be in the posse. The agenda, instead, is to avoid dirty work, dodge the tab, claim credit for "leadership" in speeches at the National Press Club, carp about Boutros-Ghali, and shunt the blame to others. This travesty of leadership has discredited and weakened both the U.N. and the U.S., and it has demoralized Americans and others who understood that a real collective security system, with a U.N. equipped for peace making, is the only alternative to anarchy.

Randolph Ryan became an editorial writer at The Boston Globe in 1981 and a regular columnist in 1985. He contributed a dozen pieces to the October 17, 1982, Globe special magazine, War and Peace in the Nuclear Age, that won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. Ryan attended SAIS from 1966-67.

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