At a hearing on Wednesday before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight (watch the webcast here, and go to about the 1:07 mark for the fieriest bits), Representative Dana Rohrabacher took a host of unnecessary pot shots at UN peacekeeping, indiscriminately writing off nearly every mission as a “failure” and insulting blue helmets for “incompetence” and “cowardice.” The briefer at the hearing, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Jane Holl Lute wisely opted not to stoop to Rohrabacher’s level, particularly because none of the other committee members shared Rohrabacher’s outlandish views. As a former decorated member of the U.S. military herself, though, Lute understandably bristled at Rohrabacher’s downright insulting indictment of brave UN peacekeeping personnel.
While Lute refrained from making the following comparison — though the subcommittee’s chair, Rep. Bill Delahunt, did invoke Iraq several times — the principles of both logic and sound policymaking demand that it be made: if peacekeeping debacles were consistently attributed to troops’ “incompetence” and “cowardice,” U.S. soldiers would face a string of equally groundless defamations for the imbroglio they are facing in Iraq. That they do not is testament to the double standard that Rohrabacher so eagerly employs to slander UN peacekeepers. At the heart of Rohrabacher’s anti-UN agenda — of which his crusade is of course only an example — is his ruthless exploitation of a key difference in the political capital generated by two premises: on the one hand, the entrenched dictate of “Support the Troops,” and on the other, the much less well-established — while no less valuable — imperative to “Support the Peacekeepers.”I am consistently fascinated and dismayed by the extent to which politicians like Rohrabacher find it politically expedient to use the United Nations as nothing more than a punching bag. Though the extreme version of their argument by no means attracts common currency, the hollowness of this general line of thinking merits some investigation. By so intensely focusing their ire on the global institution, these politicians are committing an egregious straw man fallacy, excusing American inaction by obscuring the root causes of the problems they are attacking. As Mark so ably articulated, it is deeply disingenuous for the U.S. to posture that the slow deployment of UNAMID stems from the UN’s inadequacies, rather than from insufficient commitments on the part of Member States. Representative Rohrabacher’s blanket indictments of UN peacekeeping failures are similarly incomplete and self-exculpatory when they neglect to consider the simple formula that the UN’s actions — successes and failures both — are only determined by the decisions and support of UN Member States.
That the United Nations provides a convenient scapegoat for politicians is perhaps not surprising. But that some can use UN-bashing affirmatively as a surefire political slam dunk cannot help but puzzle me, when it is so clear that UN blue helmets are the only ones to risk their lives patrolling the many chaotic war zones into which the U.S. has consistently voted for their deployment. The death of a UN peacekeeper is as tragic as the loss of an American soldier, yet it does not create the same political flak generated by the loss of an American life. How is it that some politicians can so frequently and so eagerly urge other countries’ troops into harm’s way, in places where we would not or cannot send our own sons and daughters, yet give so little respect for — and even dare to impugn the bravery of — those who do undertake the arduous and unglamorous work of peacekeeping?
This question is particularly paradoxical when considering those U.S. officials and lawmakers who do indeed profess a high level of support for the UN’s role across the world. Even without sinking to the shameful low of slinging ad hominem attacks at UN peacekeepers, the U.S., while calling for an increased UN presence in country after country with one hand, consistently undermines the possible effectiveness of these missions by dramatically and dangerously underfunding them. Operating on a budget of just $7 billion, the U.S. currently owes a staggering $1.4 billion to UN peacekeeping.
Politicians and constituents both deserve some measure of blame for perpetuating the disgusting political game of vilifying the United Nations as is expedient, a tactic that helps neither peacekeepers nor those innocents they are tasked with protecting. While some of this exploitative scapegoating may stem from ideological opposition, at the base of the problem often seems to lie a shockingly unfortunate groundswell of ignorance. Secretary Lute attested to this large-scale unfamiliarity with the UN’s role at the outset of her statement, poignantly observing that “what people do not know about peacekeeping is more impressive than what they do know.” If people did know and appreciate the dangers faced by UN peacekeepers, we can most likely safely assume that they would be as loathe to defile the integrity of blue helmets — or even the value of the UN as an institution — as they are to blindly attack the character of individual U.S. soldiers.