If American conservatism is truly the fount of "new ideas," as its publicists incessantly assure us, why do conservatives constantly promote the stale old ideas that obsessed them in 1962?
Back then, the extremists of the ultra-right regarded the United Nations as the advance guard of the international communist conspiracy. "Get the U.S. out of the U.N. and the U.N. out of the U.S.!" blared the bumper-sticker slogan of the John Birch Society, while the National Review called for the U.N. to be "liquidated."
Today, although the rhetoric is not quite so shrill, the Birch Society's ideological descendants still feel the same way. With the U.N. beset by scandal, the right can't resist the opportunity to sever American ties with the world organization. Heedless as always of damaging traditional alliances and America's global reputation, they have opened a campaign to undermine and ultimately destroy the U.N. It is a peculiar crusade for Americans to undertake just when the U.S. government is counting on the U.N. to help legitimize the Iraqi elections -- the kind of multilateral mission that is becoming even more essential on a planet where failed states threaten the security of everyone.
For the moment, conservative critics are focused on U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. They've demanded his resignation as punishment for corruption and mismanagement of Iraq's "oil-for-food" program. Designed to ease economic sanctions on the Iraqi people by allowing oil to be traded for food and medicine, the program fell prey to exploitation by Saddam Hussein during the final years of his dictatorship. From newspaper investigations, it is clear that Saddam used the program to enrich himself and to import illicit items -- and that various companies and political figures in Russia, France, China and the United States, among others, profited along with the dictator.
The most embarrassing revelations for the secretary general involve his son Kojo, who enjoyed a lucrative, conflict-ridden consulting contract with Cotecna, a Swiss firm accused of abetting Saddam's abuse of the oil deals. That has prompted Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who chairs a Senate committee investigating the scandal, to urge Annan to quit. That demand is now echoing around Congress and the conservative media, from the Wall Street Journal to Fox News to the cover of the National Review.
An American politician denouncing legalized bribery and conflict of interest sounds mildly ridiculous to anyone familiar with Washington's campaign financing system (and the most recent adventures of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay). But Coleman's assault on Annan would be premature and demagogic even if it weren't so hypocritical.
Last April, the secretary general appointed Paul Volcker, a former Federal Reserve Bank chairman whose integrity has never been questioned, to oversee an internal investigation of the oil-for-food program. Annan has cooperated with the probe, and Volcker recently promised to release the evidence he has gathered early next year. But Coleman and the Annan-bashing claque can't wait until then.
Behind the attacks on Annan lies the broader purpose of bringing down the U.N. itself. Once praised by the likes of former Sen. Jesse Helms for implementing fiscal reform, the secretary general provoked deep enmity on the right by opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and by criticizing its illegality again last September during the U.S. presidential campaign. Worse yet, U.N. inspectors made the terrible mistake of being correct about the nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq.
For the Bush administration and its conservative allies, the U.N. represents embarrassment and obstruction. Seeing no value in debating and discussing world problems with lesser nations, they regard the U.N. as nothing but an unworthy obstacle to the exercise of American power. To them, the world body symbolizes all that they hate about multilateralism and diplomacy.
Certain starry-eyed neoconservatives broach the idea of a new global organzation that would only admit "legitimate" democratic governments (as defined, perhaps, by the Heritage Foundation or the Wall Street Journal editorial board). In the neocon scenario, the U.N. would be hollowed into a meaningless, impoverished shell, and left to such pariahs as Kim Jong Il and the Iranian mullahs.
As fantasy, this explains much about the mind-set of the neoconservative right in the aftermath of the Iraq debacle. They need somebody to blame, other than themselves, and Annan provides a most convenient target. As policy, however, the abandonment of the U.N. is just as crazy as when the John Birch Society printed its first bumper sticker -- as the neocons might acknowledge if they listened to our closest allies.
Responding to the latest attacks on Annan, the British government did not hesitate to affirm its support for him and for the multilateral system that he symbolizes. On this issue the rest of the world, legitimate, democratic and otherwise, echoes Britain.
Most of the world's nations believe that the U.N. needs to be reformed to deal with the problems of the new century, not ruined to satisfy ideologues in Washington. Thanks to a distinguished panel convened by the secretary general, important reforms are on the table, although the panel's report is overshadowed for the moment by scandal. Its proposals will remain on the world's agenda in the months to come because there is, in fact, no realistic alternative to the U.N. despite its flaws.
Meanwhile Kofi Annan and his aides may eventually have to answer for the corruption uncovered on their watch, but they are entitled to due process and a full examination of the facts. More important, the fate of Annan should have no effect on America's commitment to the U.N. The politicians trying to railroad him -- and to wreck the organization he leads -- will only succeed in isolating the U.S. again, at a moment when we should be seeking to rebuild our damaged alliances.
What was lunacy in 1962 is no saner now.