By Patrick O’Hannigan
My friend, Felix Dodds, consults for the United Nations. Thanks to his zest for life and unusual upbringing among activists in the United Kingdom, Dodds has wide experience in organizing other people, working with NGOs, and manipulating the levers of public opinion for the sake of issues like opposing nuclear power and increasing global focus on sustainable agricultural practices. In a recent blog entry co-written with Michael Strauss, the executive director of a consultancy called Earth Media, Dodds took up the cudgels in defense of the United Nations against criticisms voiced by U.S. National Security Advisor-designate John Bolton and one of his defenders, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens.
It wasn’t a fair fight. Had Dodds and Strauss vs. Bolton and Stephens been a professional wrestling match, it’s Bolton and Stephens who would have been given folding metal chairs and permission to leap from ring ropes onto their opponents.
John Bolton has long been treated as a bogeyman with a penchant for scaring everyone to his left. Run a search on his name in the engine that bestows doodles on obscure historical figures while refusing to observe Easter, and it serves up articles with titles like “John Bolton and the Tricky Politics of the Mustache,” and “How John Bolton Wants to Destroy the Constitution to Attack North Korea”.
Consequently, Dodds and Strauss are squarely on the “You Are Here” marker in progressive maps of the American landscape when they begin their salvo in defense of the U.N. by characterizing the Trump Administration as a “carnival roller coaster ride.” There are three Peeps in their crosshairs: Donald Trump, John Bolton, and Bret Stephens. Although the best-known circus closed its doors last year, circus metaphors are still powerful, so Dodd and Strauss want the rest of us to think of Trump, Bolton, and Stephens as the addled ringmaster, the embittered lion tamer, and the besotted publicist.
The U.N. defenders presumably remember Mark Twain’s quip about the usefulness of weaponized laughter, but what they miss is the danger of playing to their own gallery. Their target-rich environment has fostered carelessness. For example, they sneer that the hiring of Stephens was met with “stunned acrimony” by Times readers familiar with his previous work for the Wall Street Journal, but that is not something that the rest of us would necessarily hold against him. NY Times readers don’t like neo-conservative columnists? Well, slap me silly. It so happens they don’t like charter schools, gun ranges, NASCAR races, Christmas creche displays, bluegrass music, or Wal-Mart, either. For all of their virtue-signaling allegiance to “diversity,” neither the New York Times nor its loyal readership has ever been a wholly accurate mirror of the American experience.
Stephens’ offense was saying that Bolton was right to criticize the United Nations. Dodds and Strauss seem to be aghast that a scribe at the so-called “paper of record” might take up for a draft-dodging ambassador who supported former president George Bush’s war with Iraq. They studiously “forget” to mention that the same war was publicly supported by other people more congenial to their points of view, not least among them Colin Powell, who had private reservations about the conflict at the time, but only called it a mistake after everyone else had already dogpiled on the “faulty intelligence” narrative. Meanwhile, whatever you think of John Bolton’s courage or lack of same, nothing he says about the United Nations would seem out of place coming from our current ambassador to the U.N., either. Any argument with the Bolton critique of the United Nations must also answer Nikki Haley.
After having painted Stephens as an oddball and Bolton as a chicken-hawk, Dodds and Strauss defend the U.N. as best they can, but it’s not an enviable task. They admit that some of the Bolton (and Stephens) criticism is “unfortunately accurate,” yet declare that it promotes “misrepresentation” and “misunderstanding” that they say is “shared by too many Americans.”
Dodds and Strauss offer a six-point rebuttal of the case that Stephens had tried to make when endorsing Bolton’s critique. As a writer with ancient experience in interscholastic debate, I’ve taken the liberty of scoring the rhetorical effectiveness of their rebuttal in a game of “Critcs vs. Defenders,” as follows:
- To answer the charge that ineffectual U.N. response to the conflict in Aleppo, Syria, is an example of “international paralysis” and over-reliance on “collective security” in the face of barbarism, Dodds and Strauss say, “Don’t blame the U.N. collectively; blame the five permanent member countries on its Security Council, all of which can veto proposed actions.” That’s an odd defense, given that permanent members of the Security Council do what they do because the U.N. charter documents permit it. Advantage: Critics.
- To answer the charge the U.N. Peacekeeping troops caused a serious cholera epidemic in Haiti that the U.N. cravenly refused to acknowledge for six years, Dodds and Strauss say that the critics are correct, but the U.N. can’t prosecute peacekeeping troops because they’re on loan from member countries, and the U.S. led original cover-up efforts. What Dodds and Strauss don’t mention is that the time period involved (2010 to 2016) implicates the Obama administration in any cover-up. Advantage: Critics.
- To answer the charge that U.N. peacekeeping troops all but abandoned the country of Rwanda at the outset of its infamous campaign of genocide, Dodds and Strauss say that U.N. peacekeepers did save lives in areas under their control, and a U.N. request for 5,000 more troops fell on deaf ears. Advantage: Defenders.
- To answer the charge that in Bosnia in 1995, U.N. peacekeepers “stepped aside in Srebrenica and allowed more than 7,000 men and boys to be killed and countless women raped,” Dodds and Strauss say that’s true, but U.N. forces were badly outnumbered, and Bosnian Serbs who perpetrated this outrage also held hostages at strategic sites as a hedge against attacks from the air. In other words, critics and defenders alike lament the horrible outcome, but defenders want the rest of us to cut the U.N. a break because it faced logistical hurdles. Advantage: Critics.
- To answer the charge that the U.N. budget is “not a shoestring,” Dodds and Strauss claim that the budget for New York City is bigger (which is true), and that refugee resettlement is expensive (also true, but arguably a case of the U.N. having to eat its own dog food, given that exhibit A is the 13.5 million Syrians who have fled their own country as a result of the civil war there). Dodds and Strauss also suggest that the U.N. budget includes efforts to “help feed, clothe, house, and educate over 1 billion human beings living in extreme poverty in over 120 countries.”
Numbers in that sentence seem suspect, given that definitions of “third world” do not typically include that many countries, and outreach to “over 1 billion people” is only possible with a staggeringly ambitious infrastructure that critics have long said the U.N. has no business building, given its track record and educational biases (Articles in the New Oxford Review and elsewhere have documented that in Africa, for example, U.N. apparatchiks are more enthusiastic about shipments of condoms than about shipments of anti-malarial drugs, because it hasn’t occurred to them that Paul Erhlich’s “population bomb” thesis was discredited three generations ago, not least by the life-saving work of Norman Borlaug). Advantage: Critics.
- To answer the incredulity with which critics point to representatives from Iran being appointed to the Commission on the Status of Women, Dodds and Strauss point out that Iran was elected fair and square by Asian nations, and anyone who doesn’t like that outcome would do well to remember that it was better than having dictator Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe appointed a Goodwill Ambassador (as he was). In other words, the defenders’ case amounts to “it could have been worse.” Advantage: Critics.
The final tally: Critics 5 to Defenders 1. Dodds and Strauss close their defense of the United Nations with another swipe at Bolton for ducking Vietnam War military service, and a poke at President Nixon for violating the Logan Act. While quoting his brother John, they don’t mention that Senator Edward Kennedy also violated the Logan Act, and far more recently than Nixon did. In any event, it looks to me like Bolton and Stephens make a solid (Trumpian?) case for taking the United Nations down a few pegs.
Patrick O’Hannigan writes at Compass Headings