WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In wine, the experts say, vintage is everything. If that's the case, 2004 has turned out to be a very bad year for the United Nations. But the United Nations' vinegar may yet prove to be a very good thing for the rest of us -- particularly if the decision is made to break open the casks, pour out the putrid contents and start over.
For adherents of "internationalism" and "collective security" at the United Nations, 2004 has been a tough year. The "Oil-for-Food" scandal, a story that first broke on Fox News, now has "legs" of its own -- and investigators are honing in on those closest to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
To make matters worse for the egocentric Annan, George W. Bush, the man who challenged the United Nations to live up to its own stated resolutions and responsibilities -- and was castigated for doing so -- got himself re-elected. And now, just as Annan is planning to put the arm on American citizens for a multibillion-dollar makeover for his palace in Turtle Bay, along comes his handpicked "High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Changes" with a report that indicts the United Nations for its ineffectiveness.
It all points to a remarkable opportunity for the world's democracies to clean up the festering mess that the United Nations has become -- and create something more suited to the 21st century's new world disorder.
Though the multibillion-dollar Oil-for-Food scam has yet to rise to the level of importance in the U.S. media as the Scott Peterson trial, the international press corps -- usually sympathetic to the United Nations -- has started snooping around in France, Germany, Russia, China and the half-dozen other countries where officials may be implicated.
In the U.S. Congress, there are calls for Annan's resignation and measures to hold corrupt U.N. officials -- now immune from prosecution -- accountable for crimes they commit "while on duty." In Baghdad, FBI investigators, working with Iraqi and U.S. Justice Department prosecutors preparing the case against Saddam Hussein and other high-level officials of his regime, are weighing how they can learn more about how U.N.-administered funds were siphoned off to buy weapons, enrich Saddam and line the pockets of mendacious foreign officials and U.N. bureaucrats. And at the U.N. headquarters, Paul Volker, perhaps prodded by tenacious investigative journalism by Fox News correspondents Eric Shawn and Jonathan Hunt, is promising a "full and fair" report that will expose who got what, even if it goes "to the top" of the U.N. pyramid.
None of this is good news for the long-tenured Annan, who is scheduled to remain in office until 2006. But Kofi is fighting back, collecting billions of dollars to refurbish the 58-year-old U.N. headquarters building in New York -- and build a new 35-story complex next door for an even bigger world-governing bureaucracy. He dismisses his troubles as the consequence of a "conservative, anti-U.N. rabble" -- just trying to make trouble for an international institution that they never liked anyway.
But what no one should ignore is the scathing internal critique proffered by the United Nations' own "high level" panel on U.N. reform. Though the committee's findings fall short -- ignoring for example, the Security Council's anti-Israeli bias, the Human Rights Commission's embrace of dictators or the Refugee Organization's unwillingness to keep terrorists from overtly using U.N.-administered camps in the Middle East as recruiting centers -- they are telling nonetheless. The United Nations's failures in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Congo are as inescapable as the well-documented collapse of the Iraqi disarmament program in the 1990s that led to the current U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Unfortunately, because the authors of the report are U.N. bureaucrats and the United Nations is their sinecure, the committee is unwilling to suggest the unthinkable: doing away with the Security Council as irrelevant to the realities of the 21st century. Yet that is the inescapable conclusion for the democracies bearing the burden of an increasingly expensive, moribund bureaucracy that has proven itself inadequate to the task for which it was founded.
The anemic prescription for improvement -- a recognition that pre-emptive military action is legitimate -- as long as it passes a U.N.-test for approval -- is ludicrous. So, too, is its proposal to expand the Security Council from 15 to 24 members. Courage, once Dan Rather's favorite word, demanded a more realistic proposal: keep the General Assembly open as a place to debate how many blankets are needed to help assuage a humanitarian disaster like an earthquake -- and replace the Security Council with a new Democratic Alliance.
Such a proposal will, of course, create great angst from those who believe that the United Nations -- an entity that has up till now found itself unable or unwilling to even define "terrorism" or "democracy" -- can somehow resurrect itself. That should not deter those democracies -- who know well who they are -- from creating an organization that is capable of bringing multilateral action to bear against adversaries like Al Qaeda, or its ilk.
To do less in this window of opportunity invites anarchists like Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and rogue leaders like those in Pyongyang and Tehran, to further adventures. This is the time to scrap the United Nations as we know it today -- and start over so that our children have a better tomorrow.