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U.N.’s Military Efficiency Inherently Flawed

Defense intellectuals are a curious breed. Some, especially those who’ve never served in uniform, grow so infatuated with their theories that you just want to cut them off with: “Excuse me, which battalion did you say you were in?” Others, who have worn the suit, come to regard their own experiences as the standard of truth and limit of the knowable.
Save it for the reunion, guys.

Still, defense intellectuals (no, the term is not an oxymoron) do matter insofar as, with every change of president, another crop hits the Pentagon. So when a good man comes along, a Beltway adept who also has something to say to the folks residing on that narrow land bridge between Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor and the People’s Republic of California, it’s worth pointing him out . . . before he becomes deputy assistant secretary of defense for R&D/C37I26/TGIF&ETC.

John Hillen holds a doctorate from Oxford University and a Bronze Star (army cav) from Desert Storm. A former analyst at the Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC’s premier conservative think tank, he’s currently a fellow at the decidedly more liberal Council on Foreign Relations. And he’s one of the few defense intellectuals to understand the intricacies, fallacies, and foibles of one of the United Nation’s more questionable activities: armed mucking-about in other people’s affairs.

According to Hillen, UN military operations short of war, aka peace-keeping and peace-enforcing, are neither mortal sin nor all-purpose salvation. But they do demonstrate a deadly paradox. When they’re small and operate with the consent and active support of the belligerents, military inefficiency and/or incompetence can slide by. But to the extent that UN forces have to do anything beyond observe a cease-fire or hold a strip of land between two belligerents, they generally cannot muster the military competence to succeed. Such forces, no matter what their country of origin, become less than the sum of their parts. And as for the prospect of a UN standing army, says Hillen:

“It’s redundant where it can be used and unhelpful where it should not be used. Which is anywhere that serious forces are required.”

His message is worth heeding, given the UN disasters of the past few years (Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia) and the possibility of more down the road.

In his new book, Blue Helmets: The Strategy of UN Military Operations, Hillen points out that the UN Charter provides a variety of legalistic justifications for the employment of armed force. It was also supposed to have a permanent military structure. This never came about, due to US/Soviet rivalry. Throughout the Cold War, UN peacekeeping remained a modest affair, merely positioning lightly armed multinational forces in limited areas to supervise agreements already reached. The UN’s one full-scale war was managed entirely by the United States. Its one major adventure into peace-enforcement, the Congo, proved a costly embarrassment.

The Cold War’s end and the Persian Gulf victory led a congeries of UN-afficianados, from Third World bureaucrats to American liberals, to envision a more active role for the organization and such forces as it could borrow from its members. So First peace-keeping segued into peace-enforcement. The UN started dropping larger forces into active conflict without the consent and/or cooperation of the belligerents. Often, there was no clear geographical lines; factions mixed with each other and the general population. The UN and other agencies also undertook a variety of constabulary and nation-building activities amid the hostilities. These had to be protected. And the UN did it all on an ad hoc basis, mixing forces from many countries on short notice, with no commonality of training or doctrine, no workable chain of command, and often with no attainable missions assigned.

The results were predictable. Most missions failed. Somalia became an American fiasco. The Bosnian operation had to be contracted out to NATO: the first official use of force in that alliance’s history. So bad did it get in Bosnia that the Belgian general in command remarked prior to his resignation: “I don’t read the Security Council resolutions anymore. They don’t help me.”

Still, Hillen blames the Clinton administration, not the UN, for ultimate failure. The United States, wishing to function as the world’s policeman/therapist/nanny but unwilling to admit it openly, pushed the UN into activities for which it was neither prepared nor competent . . . then cut off support when the inevitable happened. The real villain, he believes, is Madeleine Albright, not old Boutro-Boutros or his activist successor, Kofi Anan. Albright, in his view, loves to tout America as “the one indispensable nation,” but hopes to dispense with the complexities and costs of trying to play that role openly and honestly.

UN peace-keeping, according to Hillen, has gone into merciful low-profile. Still, there’s always the danger of another misguided revival, especially among those in DC who judge policies by their motivations, not their results, and success by spin, not victory.

Says Hillen:

“Never underestimate the ability of the Washington elite, of whom far too few got hit on the playground when they were growing up, to let their rhetoric outstrip their resources. When that happens, look for them to toss the UN into the breach again.”

Philip Gold

Dr. Philip Gold is a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, and director of the Institute's Aerospace 2010 Project. A former Marine, he is the author of Evasion,: The American Way of Military Service and over 100 articles on defense matters. He teaches at Georgetown University and is a frequent op-ed contributor to several newspapers. Dr. Gold divides his time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.