Of what use is the United Nations? Sometimes, it seems the answer is: none at all.
The U.N. Oil for Food program, we learn from the reporting of Claudia Rosett in The Wall Street Journal, was a rip-off on the order of $21 billion -- with money intended for hungry Iraqis going instead to Saddam Hussein and his henchmen, to bribed French and Russian businesses and, evidently, to the U.N.'s own man in charge, Benon Savan.
The United Nations General Assembly is largely a forum for denunciations of Israel. The United Nations Human Rights Commission has been chaired by, of all nations, Libya. The United Nations Security Council, by the veto of France and Russia, refused to approve military action in Iraq in January 2003 -- even though Saddam Hussein's regime violated Resolution 1441 passed only two months before.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has unhelpfully criticized the military assault on terrorists in Fallujah as "illegal." U.N. peacekeeping forces in Africa and elsewhere have committed sexual assaults on a vast scale. U.N. officials dispatched to aid victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami have been seeking first-class hotel lodgings, while American military forces and relief organizations from the United States, Australia, Japan and many other countries have been working long hours to help those in need.
No wonder that angry voices on the political right are calling for the United States to leave the U.N. and evict it from New York. And no wonder that the voices on the left celebrating the U.N. as a force for human rights and world peace sound increasingly tinny.
Nevertheless, there is a place for the United Nations in American foreign policy. Useful guidance to that place can come from history -- specifically, from two of the founder spirits of the United Nations, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Franklin Roosevelt more than anyone else created the United Nations, but he did not do so out of some naive belief in world government bringing universal peace. He spoke words of idealism but was also a cynical observer of the way the world works.
No one knew this more than that other cynical observer, Charles de Gaulle. In his memoirs, de Gaulle tells how Roosevelt described his vision for the U.N. in 1944, at a time when France was not slated to be a permanent member of the Security Council: