WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In September 1931, when the Japanese Imperial Army marched into Manchuria, the Nationalist Government of China, a signatory to the League of Nations charter, called on the international community for help.
The League arrogantly pronounced that the aggression would stop because it had taken the matter "under consideration." Tokyo's response to this vacillation was to seize Shanghai. The Chinese again appealed to the League of Nations. While the diplomats dithered, Tokyo renamed Manchuria, set up a puppet regime in its capital and declared that Japanese troops were staying. The League of Nations responded by censuring Tokyo and demanding the withdrawal of Japanese troops. The Japanese promptly withdrew from the League, declaring its deliberations to be "irrelevant." World War II had begun -- though it took the Europeans another seven years to understand.
This sad, but accurate historical lesson in arrogance and irrelevance is pertinent to what transpired at the League's successor -- the United Nations -- this week. On Tuesday, Sept. 21, the president of the United States stood before the U.N. General Assembly and challenged the world body to try -- once again -- to be relevant in a world threatened by an evil even more dangerous than fascism: fanatical terrorism.
In a stirring tutorial, Bush recounted both the threat and horror of what now emanates from much of the Middle East: "Eventually there is no safe isolation from terror networks or failed states that shelter them, or weapons of mass destruction." He then offered an account of the sacrifice in treasure and lives being made by the United States and a handful of allies to protect the innocent from the bloody hands of terrorists and generously help those less fortunate than we. Unfortunately, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the erratic and secretive leader of this multibillion dollar global organization, wasn't listening.
In his opening remarks, Annan -- who last week declared the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein to be "illegal" -- hectored world leaders to "start from the principle that no one is above the law and no one should be denied its protection." He went on to describe his ethical universe: "In Iraq, we see civilians massacred in cold blood ... and we have seen Iraqi prisoners disgracefully abused." Apparently to Annan, the ghastly, systematic beheading of innocent civilians is morally equivalent to an isolated case of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Ironically, as he was drawing this frightening parallel, a radical Islamic website was posting the horrific images of Jack Armstrong being beheaded.
Sadly, few in the U.S. media took the time to focus on the hubris or ethical inconsistencies in Annan's lecture. Instead, the potentates of the press rushed to cite the differences between the president's challenge to the world body and the approach offered by his rival, Sen. John Kerry. The day before Bush spoke to the General Assembly, the Democrat nominee was feted at New York University, where he demanded that in Iraq "the U.N. must play a central role" and pledged that if he is elected he will "recruit troops from our friends and allies for a U.N. protection force." Who does Kerry want to lead such a force? Kofi Annan?
Since none of the reporters covering the Kerry campaign bothered to ask that question at the candidate's press conference this week, we don't know -- but before anyone offers the U.N. Secretary-General the mantle of leadership for rebuilding Iraq or fighting terrorism, it would be wise to examine his record.
In March 2003, prior to the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I reported from Kuwait that "senior U.S. military officials were concerned that Saddam Hussein was using cash from the U.N. Oil for Food program to buy votes in the Security Council." The New York Times immediately trashed the charge -- and anonymous sources at the United Nations claimed the allegation was "preposterous" and "unfounded."
But we now know better. Since then, we have learned that cash from the Oil for Food program -- administered directly from Annan's office by one of his most trusted aides, Benon V. Sevan, was used by Saddam for everything but food. The Iraqi dictator used the U.N. provided funds to buy weapons, finance terror and enrich officials in the Communist Party of Slovakia, the Palestinian Liberation Organization and political figures in France, Libya, Syria, Indonesia and Russia. Despite the presence of U.N. administrators in Baghdad and "auditors" at the U.N. headquarters in New York, Saddam was able to offer "coupons" worth millions of barrels of Iraqi crude oil to "friendly officials," who were allowed to sell them on the market and pocket huge profits.
This arrogance flies in the face of Kerry's call to give the United Nations greater say in how we protect ourselves from terror -- much less any suggestion that American troops should again don blue berets. Doing either or both won't make the world body more relevant to present realities. Dealing with corruption at the United Nations might.