- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2000

Ten years into the post-Cold War world, there is a need for a critical assessment of "the efforts of the international community" to manage, contain or ameliorate assorted humanitarian catastrophes plaguing failed states and gangster regimes throughout the world. It has been a rough road.

In "Deliver Us From Evil," British journalist William Shawcross, (the controversial author of "Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia") provides a hopscotch tour of prominent global trouble spots at least those in which CNN and the United Nations have become heavily engaged. These include former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Iraq and assorted African countries in crisis. His new book is largely a lament over the failure of such interventions.

Mr. Shawcross quotes extensively from interviews with former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and international bureaucrats and aid workers. The author finds much to praise in the two U.N. chiefs and takes his title from Mr. Annan's speech to the 1999 General Assembly.

Mr. Shawcross notes that the secretary-general's burden is one of always having to negotiate with varying levels of evil but seems unable to recognize his own contradictions. He supports humanitarian "nation-building" under U.N. auspices while, at the same time, criticizing similar undertakings by the West, particularly by the United States.

Nevertheless the book succeeds in depicting the limits, and sometimes the perverse effects, of humanitarian action: Food aid can inadvertently sustain a conflict, displace populations to aid centers and undermine indigenous agriculture. This is what happened to some extent in Biafra, in Somalia, and may be happening today in Sudan. Outside intervention can freeze a conflict in place when it might otherwise have been resolved.

Ethnic cleansing is winning in Bosnia and Kosovo with no end in sight to NATO occupation; a new set of warlords fights over Somalia; U.N.-sanctioned elections have been overturned in Cambodia; Haiti is once again mired in futility; Saddam Hussein has successfully escaped inspections and sanctions on Iraq are now under heavy assault; the West downplays Russian brutality in Chechnya.

Thirty years ago many on the left argued the limits of American intervention, in at least partial sympathy with "liberation movements" of varying hues. Many of the same people have been among the most ardent in claiming the humanitarian label, especially in urging military deployment to former Yugoslavia. Those of us who undertook refugee resettlement, land reform, agricultural modernization and other nation-building pursuits while in uniform in Vietnam would have appreciated their support at that time and their company.

Mr. Shawcross has attained a more nuanced worldview than he exhibited in earlier books. There are now more shades of gray in his palette. He no longer blames American bombing for driving the Khmer Rouge to genocide.

But what is still missing is an appreciation of the essential national underpinnings of international efforts, and particularly of competent American leadership. Mr. Shawcross suggests that humanitarian intervention today is gaining increased international support, a most dubious conclusion. And he cannot fully escape his earlier biases. He finds the U.S. "military command" more to blame for failure in Somalia than Mr. Boutros-Ghali, who drove the mission from famine relief to regime change with tragic results.

The root issue and one little touched on is the degree to which the democratic polities of the West can, at some acceptable price in blood and treasure, successfully manipulate societies in which significant elements are prepared to fight for their little plot of ground. How does one reign in a warlord absent a willingness to make war? Zero casualties as in the Kosovo air campaign cannot be assumed.

For nation-building to have any chance to succeed, it must rest on a domestic consensus strong enough to survive inevitable setbacks and enduring enough to stay the course. This, in turn, requires a high degree of discrimination in the selection of missions and judgment in their execution, qualities particularly lacking in multilateral undertakings.

The United Nations can indeed play a beneficial role in some of the world's crises and it can usefully substitute for more direct American involvement in the many circumstances where America's vital interests are not at stake. But to invest unrealistically high expectations in the United Nations leads to early disillusion. And to substitute the confused and conflicting policy outcomes of U.N. deliberations for a clear-eyed assessment of American interests is folly.

was a colonel in the U.S Army Reserve.

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