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Actually Improving the UN

Reporting from Congo, New York Times correspondent Lydia Polgreen adds another sad chapter to the long, tragic story of United Nations peacekeeping failures. She recounts how vicious rebels in eastern Congo killed at least 150 people in a rampage last month. Those killings, she adds, took place as

a contingent of about 100 United Nations peacekeepers was less than a mile away, struggling to understand what was happening outside the gates of its base. The peacekeepers were short of equipment and men, United Nations officials said, and they were focusing on evacuating frightened aid workers and searching for a foreign journalist who had been kidnapped. Already overwhelmed, officials said, they had no intelligence capabilities or even an interpreter who could speak the necessary languages.

The details provided down below are even more damning:

The [UN peacekeeping] company’s only translator left the base on Oct. 26 and was not replaced until more than two weeks later. But even in normal times, communications are limited. To make logistical arrangements, the peacekeepers depend largely on civilian staff members who work normal business hours and have weekends off. Unable to speak to most of the population and with almost no intelligence capabilities, Colonel Brar groped his way through a fog of rumor, speculation and misinformation.

“During this whole time, there was an informational vacuum,” Colonel Brar said.

With just one company of soldiers and three armored vehicles, the colonel’s peacekeepers were overmatched, he said. Patrols had to be aborted because rebels and militia fighters opened fire with heavy weapons that could pierce the vehicles’ cladding. The peacekeepers said they could not tell the difference between the different armed groups and were fearful of firing on civilians.

It is all too easy, reading accounts like this, to snort in derision and write off the UN as a hopeless failure. Easy, but not productive. After all, if the UN isn’t trying to keep the peace in Congo, who will do the job? However undermanned and underequipped and inadequate in every way, UN forces are often the only instruments available to stop horrific bloodshed.

I would urge my compatriots on the right to put aside their reflexive-and usually well-justified-antipathy to all things UN and think about how we can improve this organization’s capacity so it can actually be a useful instrument in stemming chaos in ungoverned spaces, something that is very much in the interest of the United States and other civilized nations.

The nub of the problem, it seems to me, is the lack of capacity among UN peacekeepers who are typically contributed by poor nations for no better reason than a cash stipend. This is a deficiency that would not be hard to fix. Imagine if the UN had a standing military force that trained together, made up of veterans of Western militaries and equipped with top-of-the-line hardware. Such ideas were in fact offered forth in the early 1990s after the end of the Cold War, but they died amid the UN’s debacles in Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda. It may be time to revive them.

Admittedly it would be a tall order for the UN, with its dysfunctional bureaucracy, to exercise command and control of such a deployable force. But since the US exercises a veto at the UN Security Council, we need not fear that such a force would be employed in ways inimical to American interests.

As a first step, perhaps the UN should work on enhancing its communications, logistics, reconnaissance, and air support functions-that is, providing for peacekeepers the sorts of services that the U.S. military currently provides for the armies of Afghanistan and Iraq. The way to become proficient in all these areas is not to ask member states to pony up soldiers or equipment. It is to use the money already contributed by member states to hire the best equipment and the best operators on the open market. If Blackwater can do it, why can’t the UN?