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The Fall Guy: Washington's Self-Defeating Assault on the U.N.

Courtesy Reuters

For Richard C. Holbrooke, managing U.S.-U.N. relations must feel a bit like taking over as skipper of the Titanic -- after the iceberg. As soon as a truculent Senate finally confirmed him as permanent U.S. representative to the United Nations in August, Holbrooke headed off to the Balkans, where the West has handed the United Nations a peacekeeping migraine. In Kosovo, the province's political future remains utterly unresolved, most of the population wants an independent state that the West will not give, and a still-domineering Kosovo Liberation Army -- despite a September agreement to disband -- loses no opportunity to defy an organization it knows is in disrepute both on Capitol Hill and at the White House.

The real problem for the United Nations is that, after six years of worsening U.S.-U.N. relations and a series of bloody peacekeeping disasters, a skeptical Clinton administration now views Kosovo as a test case for whether the United Nations can ever be trusted with peacekeeping again. "The U.N.'s future in international crises," Holbrooke said, "is going to be determined in very large part by what it achieves in Kosovo." Although for the moment a truce has been declared -- senior Clinton officials have promised U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan they will avoid publicly criticizing the U.N. effort -- some in the administration seem to be positioning the United Nations as the fall guy for a probable foreign-policy mess. This, of course, continues a pattern dating back to Clinton's inaugural foreign-policy embarrassment in 1993: Somalia. Matters have only gotten worse since then.

Back in New York, Holbrooke faces an organization that is demoralized and in disarray. The United Nations' never-ending budget troubles fester on. By withholding more than $1 billion in dues, the United States is responsible for nearly 70 percent of the United Nations' current indebtedness, claims Joseph Connor, the U.N. undersecretary-general for management. As a result, the United Nations now owes $900 million in peacekeeping arrears

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