When success is softball…

Not everyone, evidently, is as unconvinced as we are that Ban Ki-moon is “the world’s most dangerous Korean.” Pegging off the rather tendentious Jacob Heilbrunn FP piece of that title, Michael Keating at World Politics Review concurs that Ban’s tenure at the UN has not been far short of failure.

There’s no need to pussy-foot around the UN’s shortcomings, and, for his part, Keating acknowledges the tremendous pressures put on the S-G office, as well as the enormity of the challenges that the UN confronts. Yet Keating’s claim that “[i]t’s not that anyone expects the U.N. to solve these problems” belies, I think, the lofty expectations that most people actually have of the UN, and particularly of its most visible personage, the S-G.

You see people’s high expectations most anytime you hear someone lament that “the UN” isn’t doing enough about whatever geopolitical issue happens to be boiling that day. So even when a top UN official does issue a strong statement about, say, the trammeling of human rights in Iran, the organization as a whole is panned for not “doing” enough to protect Iran’s people. And with pretty much no one else paying attention to the ghastly continuing conflict in eastern DR Congo, the UN is the only one on whom to hang our hopes for a solution. Unsurprisingly, those outsized expectations turn out to be quite the albatross for the UN when, in fact, a war that few countries are actually interested in resolving painfully deteriorates.

But the deeper flaw in Keating’s criticism — and one that I think most people simply silently assume — is the way he dismisses out of hand those UN operations in tough climates that actually have worked.

With the exception of softball assignments like Liberia — an acknowledged success story — U.N. peacekeeping operations have hardly been worth their expense.

Why must an “acknowledged success story” be condescendingly equated to a “softball assignment?” The fallacious implication here is that what the UN does well, it does well because it is easy. Liberia was wracked by years of civil war, torn apart by rebel groups, devastated by human rights violations and child soldiery, and driven into the ground by one of the most rapacious of recent dictators, Charles Taylor. If that’s “softball,” then I don’t even want to know what the major leagues are like.

Yet into this volatile mix came some 15,000 UN peacekeepers, and, over the course of the last six years, they have, in fits and starts, helped Liberia reach the state it’s in today: relatively peaceful, with improving infrastructure, a growing economy, and Africa’s first elected female head of state. And all this for about $600 million a year — a bargain compared to, say, what the United States is paying in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Not all peacekeeping missions have been as successful as the one in Liberia, to be sure. But neither, I would contend, have any of them been abject failures. In even more difficult cases like DR Congo and Darfur, UN peacekeepers are the only ones doing anything on the ground. To suggest that these missions “have hardly been worth their expense” — especially when that expense is so comparatively low — offends both the very real successes they have had and even the notion that something should be done about these conflicts at all. Not every brutal civil war in an oft-ignored part of the world, it turns out, is that easy to solve.

(image of an UNMIL medical officer, from UN Photo under a Creative Commons license)