Contra Marty Peretz

TNR‘s Marty Peretz has never been the most avid supporter of the United Nations, to say the least. Now, however, contemplating the international response to the crisis in Zimbabwe, he reaches perhaps a new low:

And let’s face facts: the most aggressive response to the calamity of Mugabe’s rule has been that of the United States. Which is to say, the response of George Bush. See the New York Times article headlined, “Zimbabwe Faces Wider Sanctions Under Bush Plan.” The problem is that the U.S. is taking the plan to the Security Council where it will surely fail.

Which raises the fundamental question about the United Nations: is it worth anything? My answer is “no.”

Even without discussing what the UN can in fact do in Zimbabwe — see, for example, The Economist‘s sober but cautiously optimistic take on that question — Peretz’s claim that the UN is worth nothing, based solely on insufficient action on one issue, is exceedingly myopic. Even if the UN were to roll out the red carpet for Mugabe in New York — something that Secretary-General Ban, who has condemned Zimbabwe’s election as “illegitimate,” is far from doing — that would not invalidate the myriad benefits the UN brings to the hundreds of millions of others in the scope of its work: people all over the world whom the UN and UN agencies feed and vaccinate from diseases, protect from violence, help out of poverty, and bring into democracies, just to name a few.If the United States is poised to take strong action on Zimbabwe — and here too, as in the Security Council, words will have to be backed up with concrete follow-through — then this is a reason to commend and support the U.S., not excoriate the body through which it intends to work.

Peretz would be wise to consider how effective unilateral American action on Zimbabwe could possibly be. As with Sudan, the U.S. wields much less significant influence on Zimbabwe’s junta than do other significant players like South Africa and China. The weight of Security Council action will surely create greater obstacles for Zimbabwe’s “sham government” than would a quixotic American attempt to isolate Mugabe on its own.

Pressure from African countries, particularly, can have a greater impact than rhetoric from the West, as one Mugabe spokesman unwittingly revealed when he collectively told the West to “go hang a thousand times.” The U.S. should not comply, of course, but neither should it deprive itself of using all possible channels of influence — and hopefully exposing such strident defiance as the desperate words of a regime backed into a corner, not those of one confident that the world will not even attempt to mount a unified response.