Commentary Magazine


Kristof, the UN, Darfur, and Iraq

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has written an intelligent column on Darfur, an issue he has been admirably fixated on over the years. Kristof argues that the G-8 has not done enough to stop genocide in Darfur. Kristof’s interpretation of the (flawed) mindset of the G-8 goes like this: genocide is bad, but it ought not be a priority. Little can be done, after all, so we ought to focus our efforts elsewhere, on issues like malaria and global AIDS, where the chances of progress are better.

Kristof rejects this line of argument, and I am sympathetic to his case. But his broader criticism applies just as strongly (if not more strongly) to the UN, and because of that it raises two thorny issues for liberal multilateralists.

The first is that genocide in Darfur underscores how ineffective the "international community" in general–and the United Nations in particular–are when it comes to putting an end to genocide. Pick your spot — Darfur, Rwanda, Kosovo, Burma, or any other nation on the planet — and ask yourself what the UN has done to put an end to massive violations of human rights. The answer is virtually nothing. Arguably, in this area, the presence of the UN can be marginally harmful, by providing nations a forum in which to pretend to care about genocide while doing nothing about it.

Because nations like Russia and China serve on the U.N. Security Council, there are intrinsic, severly confining  limits to the good we can hope to achieve (both nations have crippled efforts to pressure the Bashir regime and the government in Khartoum). Yet the argument we hear ad nauseam is that during the last eight years the United States has relied too little on the UN and has been too "unilateralist" in its foreign policy. But the reality is that the best way to advance justice may be for the United States to rely less on the UN and more on narrower  "coalitions of the willing." Which brings us to Iraq.

If the United States had followed the lead of the UN, it would never have overthrown the genocidal regime of Saddam Hussein and the Arab world would still be without its only authentic democracy. Yet the paper for which Kristof writes, the Times, has been a fierce critic of the war to liberate Iraq. So, for that matter, has Barack Obama, who has spoken about the need to end genocide in Darfur even as he (a) opposed the Iraq war and (b) has proposed policies — for example, in February 2007 calling for America to pull out all combat troops from Iraq by March 2008 — that would surely have brought about mass death and perhaps even genocide.

There is a lack of moral seriousness among those who desire an end but deplore the means to achieve that end. It is worse still to insist that we should place more hope and trust in institutions whose track record on stopping human rights violations and genocide is, for the most part, abysmal and which has some of the worst human rights violators in the world as overseers.

The issue liberal multilateralists need to confront is that reliance on international institutions like the UN sometimes impedes efforts to advance liberty and human rights. In that instance, what ought to be done? Let’s stipulate that we would all rather have more rather than fewer nations aiding our efforts and have those efforts blessed by every nation and international institution. But what happens when a commitment to multilateralism has the effect of weakening efforts to stop the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people? What happens when acting with the support of fifteen other nations would do more good than acting with the support of 50 other nations?

These are not easy issues to grapple with, especially given the fact that in a world filled with tyrannical regimes, America cannot act everywhere and all at once. There are limits even on our resources and willingness to sacrifice for others. But because we can’t act everywhere doesn’t mean we can’t act anywhere. And people like Kristof would have a stronger case to make for opposing genocide in Darfur if he had not, in August 2007, declared the surge a failure and advocated heading for the exits in Iraq, knowing as he did that there was a real risk of a genocidal bloodbath after our departure.

Genocide is an awful and agonizing thing in Darfur, as it would be in Iraq.

About the Author

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in  Washington, D.C. He served in the Bush White House as director of the office of strategic initiatives.