- The Washington Times - Monday, September 18, 2006

President Bush, who once said the United Nations was teetering on the brink of irrelevancy and demanded it show some backbone, has increasingly turned to the organization for international problem-solving, even as most Americans think the body has outlived its usefulness.

On issues from North Korea to Iran to Sudan, the president, who arrives in New York today to attend the U.N. General Assembly’s annual meeting, has deferred to the United Nations to drive action. Critics say Mr. Bush has been forced to become more multilateral after bucking the world body by invading Iraq, but administration officials assert that the United Nations remains a useful tool to spur foreign leaders to step in on major issues.

“This business about ‘Our relationship is so bad’ and ‘We can’t get anything done,’ when you look at it, we actually have a fairly smart record of achievement,” one senior administration official told The Washington Times last week. “We’ve gotten resolutions on some pretty serious issues where nobody thought we could get them.”

But it remains the enforcement of those resolutions that so frustrated Mr. Bush in 2002, when the U.S. led a coalition of nations to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Four years ago, he asked, “Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?”

Mr. Bush continues to have doubts about the organization. On Friday, he said, “I think a lot of Americans are frustrated with the United Nations, to be frank with you.” He cited inaction over Sudan, where genocide has left an estimated half-million people dead.

“The problem is that the United Nations hasn’t acted. And so I can understand why those who are concerned about Darfur are frustrated. I am.”

He is not alone. A poll released last week shows nearly three-quarters of Americans think the United Nations is no longer effective and would support cutting U.S. contributions to it. In fact, 57 percent of those surveyed by the Hudson Institute said they agreed that “if the U.N. cannot be reformed and made more effective, it should be scrapped.”

The United States will spend more than $1 billion this year on international organizations, much of it through the United Nations. Some lawmakers on Capitol Hill have sought to tie continued U.S. contributions to the implementation of reform at the world body, but the White House has fought most measures.

Still, since his assessment that the United Nations was becoming irrelevant, the president has sought to employ the body when faced with criticism that he is intent on running roughshod over world consensus. Internationally, this approach has been seen as hypocritical, as when U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown said in June that the Bush administration is engaged in “stealth diplomacy” by working with the organization on a number of issues, but blasting it publicly.

The White House official last week sought to downplay the president’s earlier criticism, saying he was merely warning the United Nations over a simple concept.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said the United Nations continues to be the model of inaction, failing to follow through on its resolutions. For example, he cited North Korea’s test-firing of missiles on July 4 as proof that the body is all talk.

“The entire ‘civilized world’ declared in midsummer that it would be ‘unacceptable’ for North Korea to fire missiles,” he said. “They deliberately fired seven missiles on our national holiday as a way of showing how much total contempt they had for us.”

The organization has proven itself ineffectual time and again, said Mr. Gingrich, citing the corrupt Iraqi oil-for-food program, continued kleptocracy, and the decision to put the world’s worst offenders on its Human Rights Council.

“I think we should be actively trying to create alternative institutions that matter,” he said. “I think we should take virtually nothing to the Security Council.”