Gun-free gameplay to outwit the tyrants

September 27, 2002

Paul Cornish learns how to tackle terrorists using intellect and a travel budget.

There could be any number of devils in the detail, and the moment might prove to be fleeting, but with Saddam Hussein's agreement to accept United Nations weapons inspections, the UN has moved to centre stage in the current crisis. So far, the UN has been almost a bystander, much to the annoyance of its backers, who have argued for months for a more prominent role for the UN in the handling of the Iraq Question. The UN camp wants something it calls the rule of international law to prevail; wants the crisis to be resolved through multilateral diplomacy rather than US unilateralism; and wants the management or containment of Iraq through non-coercive diplomacy (new inspection programmes and the like), rather than regime change through military operations. Each of these preferences, we are told, would best be achieved by the UN taking the lead.

George W. Bush's speech to the UN General Assembly on September 12 was, for some, a clever response to these critics; Bush pays due deference to the UN camp, in the confident expectation that any new inspections initiative will fail and so the critics (and Iraq's equivocating neighbours) will have no choice but to back Bush. You can imagine the hawks in the US administration rubbing their hands in glee at having devised such a brilliant outflanking manoeuvre. But then Saddam did a bit of brilliant outflanking of his own. And even if this proves to be no more than tactical manoeuvring by Saddam, it is clear that the UN option will have to be taken seriously after all, particularly by the UN itself.

As the UN's elite corps of inspectors and scientists prepares to take to the field, we should pause for a moment to consider how much has just been laid at the UN's door. The technical, scientific, diplomatic and administrative challenges for Unmovic (the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission) are unlikely to be any easier than those confronted by its beleaguered predecessor, the UN Special Commission (Unscom), in the 1990s. And as it sets forth to manage the world's most complex and urgent security problem, the UN will also have to deal with political pressure of an intensity seldom seen in the 1990s. Its own backers will want rapid results, to bolster the UN's credibility and to prove the argument that Saddam can be contained without recourse to war. With an eye to recovering vast debts owed by Iraq, the Russians will hope that Saddam's regime will be kept more or less intact. The hawks in the US and elsewhere will insist on a very high threshold for Unmovic's success, and will use evidence of failure to vindicate their regime-changing approach. And there will be a hunt not just for evidence of Iraqi development of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction, but also for proof that Saddam has been in league with international terrorist organisations, perhaps even to the extent of equipping them with these weapons.

The UN's apologists might confidently welcome these challenges, but its critics will be horrified that an organisation that made so many disastrous mistakes during the 1990s has now been given even more to do. As usual, the truth about the UN's strengths and weaknesses lies somewhere in between, and Marrack Goulding's Peacemonger is precisely the measured assessment of the UN's capabilities that is needed at the moment.

Goulding enjoyed a successful career as a British diplomat before moving to the UN in 1986. There followed seven years in charge of UN peacekeeping operations, covering the rapid post-cold war expansion of peacekeeping and related activities, and a further four years as head of the department of political affairs. With all that experience under his belt, Goulding ought indeed to feel qualified to comment on the UN's capability in matters of conflict and security. He should also have a huge Air Miles account; enough to impress even the globe-trotting fellows of St Antony's College, Oxford, where he has been warden since 1997.

Analyses of UN peacekeeping operations are often worthy and boring, as if the subject-matter is too serious and important to be written with colour and, still less, with levity. Goulding combines all of these qualities, even managing to be boring in places. With hints of Kipling and Buchan, Peacemonger relates one man's worldwide adventure in the UN's great game to outwit tyrants and terrorists, armed only with perseverance, intelligence and a generous travel budget. The writing is often rather good; chapter seven is a gripping account of hostage-taking in the Middle East, ending with the sad fate of Lieutenant Colonel William Higgins of the US Marine Corps, murdered by Hezbullah.

There are plenty of lighter, self-deprecating moments: our jet-lagged hero shocks UN troops in Cyprus by turning up late and shabbily dressed to inspect guards of honour; our renaissance hero indulges his passion for bird-watching to the sound of Lebanese boatmen fishing with hand grenades. Goulding also has a keen eye for the bizarre; meeting Jonas Savimbi in a room full of cellophane-wrapped plastic dolls and doll's-house furniture. But the writing is also, on occasion, rather stodgy; too much fine detail of events and meetings, reading like an unedited series of diplomatic reporting telegrams. Happily, though, Goulding never completely loses the balance between narrative and analysis.

Many of those who worked for, with or against Goulding during his time at the UN will want to read Peacemonger , and one or two might wonder what his publisher's libel lawyers guillotined from earlier drafts. The book ought also to have a broader appeal to students of international politics and security (and even some of their teachers). For them, Peacemonger offers a cogent, first-hand summary of the transition in UN peace operations from 1986-93; a lucid explanation of the different peace operations undertaken by the UN (peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding); a realistic appraisal of the failure so far to provide the UN with anything like the military capacity promised in the UN charter; and a critique of the often less than responsive UN bureaucracy. Several chapters - particularly chapter five on Lebanon and chapter 17 on Yugoslavia - are excellent cameo studies of high-pressure, conflict-mediating multilateral diplomacy.

Where international security is concerned, Goulding's view is that the UN is a Good Thing. He offers a balanced assessment of the UN's performance, one that admits failure (for example, Angola, Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia) and personal shortcomings, while applauding success (for example, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mozambique and Namibia). The message is plain; enthusiasm for the UN should not be allowed to run out of control, but neither should we give up on it altogether. In this regard, chapter 18, "Lessons learnt", is particularly useful.

Yet Goulding's faith in the UN is based on more than problem-solving pragmatism; the idealist in him looks to a rediscovery of the ethical dimension embodied in the UN charter (particularly the preamble, which stresses "fundamental human rights", rather than the state sovereignty and non-intervention amply provided for in the substantive chapters of the charter). The clash between the unstoppable force of human rights and humanitarianism and the immovable object of sovereignty has shaped the debate on international intervention, with the UN charter being deployed by both camps. Unlike more mundane rights, which require a counterpart obligation to be met, human rights by definition attach to every person and are absolute, non-contractual and universal. Universal declarations and organisations (i.e. the UN) might uphold the idea of human rights, but cannot be thought to enable these rights since they are prior. Yet the dismal human-rights performance of certain states has shown that merely upholding the idea is not enough, and so the UN has steadily sought to become more of an implementing authority for human rights than a mere repository of ideas. Critics might see in the resulting welter of declarations, documents and initiatives, pretensions of something like a traditional rights-duties exchange. But by allocating to the UN duties that it does not yet have the political and operational capacity to fulfil, the error is made of willing the ends without ensuring the means. And a second, more grave error is made if the misbehaviour of some states leads us to undermine the ideas of sovereignty and non-intervention that are intrinsic to the international system.

There have been several attempts to devise a workable compromise between cosmopolitanism and communitarianism in the context of humanitarian intervention. Responsibility to Protect , the 2002 report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, is one recent example, and Goulding's flak-jacketed moral philosophy seems to lead in a similar direction. But compromises are delicate plants, needing care and patience if they are to survive. These commodities might be in short supply during the coming weeks, months or even year, as the UN confronts strategic power at its most raw and will be expected to move boldly and decisively. Fingers crossed for the UN.

Paul Cornish is director, Centre for Defence Studies, King's College London. He is completing a Nato fellowship on ethical aspects of the use of armed force.


Author - Marrack Goulding
ISBN - 0 7195 5540 X
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £25.00
Pages - 378

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