Whiners and Losers

In his guest slot on the New York Times columnist page (subscription req.), Robert Wright flips the conventional wisdom on the Security Council’s rejection of a force authorization resolution for the American led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A sacred duty of bodies that authorize things–the Security Council, Congress, zoning boards–is to sometimes not authorize things. (Imagine a world where everything was authorized!) People who want a thing authorized sometimes call the failure to authorize it “gridlock.” People who don’t want the thing authorized prefer to say “the system worked,” and refer to people who complain about gridlock as “whiners.” Who is right?

History can judge who was “right” about the wisdom of invading Iraq in the spring of 2003. For now, I think it’s instructive to look at how a core group of pro-Iraq war pundits and editorialists (whom we may call “whiners”) tried to inflict damage on the public’s opinion of the United Nations when the Security Council refused to authorize the war.

Almost immediately following the Council’s rejection of the war resolution, folks like Claudia Rosett, Anne Bayefsky, and editorialists in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Sun hit back hard. When top United Nations officials hinted that the Iraq war may have been a mistake, the gloves really came off. Alleged improprieties in the Oil for Food program turned into a witch hunt for these pundits. Calm analysis of the facts about the program quickly gave way to unsubstantiated allegations about corruption at the very highest levels of the UN bureaucracy. Soon, these folks began to call for Kofi Annan’s head. (Here, it is crucial to point out that Paul Volcker’s long investigation into the Oil for Food program found no reason for Annan to step down.)

The damage done to the American public’s perception of the United Nations was acute. Constant media repetition of scandals at the United Nations, real or imagined, sank deep into American consciousness. On basic image issues, it is undeniable that the UN suffered from these attacks. The Gallup organization, which has conducted favorability polling on the United Nations since 1953, recorded a steep drop from a high point in Janurary 2003. The vindictive work of the so-called “whiners” may have not resulted in Annan’s resignation, but it certainly helped to corrupt Americans’ views of the United Nations.

That said, there are encouraging signs that the United Nations can recover. That same Gallup Poll showed that most Americans want the United Nations to play a major policy making role in world affairs. Other polling has been consistent on the point that most Americans want the United States to support the United Nations. Also, contrary to popular myth, polling by the Program on International Policy Attitudes has shown that a strong preference for multilateral approaches to global problems runs deep in the American electorate. Despite the best efforts of the “whiners,” Americans are still looking toward the United Nations.

As an aside, Wright’s signature book, Nonzero, argues that human progress can be traced to the development of conflict negotiation strategies that transcend zero-sum outcomes (to oversimplify of a complex thesis.) Wright devotes much space in his book describing how global governance structures and multilateral institutions (to wit: the United Nations) fits his theory. It is an excellent read. Check it out on Amazon.