UN Peacekeeping - cheap at twice the price?

United Nations peacekeeping has been heavily criticized in books, articles, speeches and in our own Congress.  Criticisms have focused on the UN bureaucracy, the long lead time for establishing a peacekeeping mission, the failure of peacekeeping missions to completely fulfill their mandate, and, particularly, the handful of missions that went very badly wrong.  UN peacekeeping has become defined by Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, and Sudan and not the other 58 peacekeeping missions that have been established by the Security Council since 1948.   

One of the harshest critics was John Bolton who served as the United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations in 2005 and 2006.  Interestingly, the Security Council approved over 100 resolutions in this period,  according to the record, Bolton voted for all of them. Since 1991, the United States has voted for over 1100 Security Council Resolutions.  And, in fact, the United States voted for all resolutions that were passed relating to Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda and Sudan.  One would assume that it the United Nations peacekeeping operations are so flawed, the United States, which helps negotiate the enabling resolutions, would balk from time to time and issue a veto. 

There is no doubt that peacekeeping, as the UN practices it could be more efficient and more effective, but there easier or cheaper alternatives if we want international authorization and approval.  Without that approval, it becomes extremely difficult, and in some cases impossible to attract troop contributors. Some countries are precluded by domestic legislation from participating in a peacekeeping mission that is not sanctioned by the UN.

There are other optiions.  Regional organizations like NATO and the African Union have engaged in peacekeeping with mixed results.  The United States has composed ad hoc coalitions of the willing, with limited UN cover.  And the United States created a special purpose peacekeeping operation outside of the UN system in the Sinai with the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) mission to monitor the Israeli Egyptian peace.  It incorporates troop contributions from 11 different countries and is composed of about 3000 military and civilian personnel.   In 1993, the MFO operating budget was $56.1 million and while this cost was divided into thirds by Egypt, Israel and the US, the actual US cost was much higher since the Department of Defense absorbed the cost of the US troops, which amounted to $46.6 million.  While the MFO total cost is not out of line with UN mission costs for equivalent missions, the US contribution is significantly greater than the 25% we pay for UN missions.  In short, the UN is a bargain when it comes to peacekeeping and yet still Congress complains.  

The fact that the former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld was anxious to cancel our participation in the MFO, suggests that the drain on US resources in terms of lift, logistics and retraining would exceed by a considerable margin the impact of a UN peacekeeping mission on our readiness.  So the question is not whether we should advocate unilateral or regional peacekeeping over UN missions, but which missions to mount through the UN. Or, more appropriately, when to pull the plug on a UN mission that has gone sour or is not fulfilling its mandate. 

In the case of Bosnia, which started with a peacekeeping mission in Croatia to provide security for three UN protected zones, all the proper steps in terms of getting agreement of the combatants were in place and the mission was operational, until the mission was expanded and the original mandate changed.  At that point the Security Council, advised by the military commander in the field, should have taken steps to provide adequate resources to do the job and to renegotiate agreement for the mission by the combatants or it should have pulled the troops home and terminated the mission.  Similarly, there were points in Somalia, Rwanda and Sudan where the game changed from the original concept sold to the Security Council and on which the peacekeeping missions were based.  In each case there should have been a reevaluation and conclusion that unless conditions were again favorable, the missions would have to be aborted. This is easier said than done. 

Public opinion and pride seem to stand in the way of considered military judgment.  The Secretary General does not want to encourage unilateralism or admit that the UN cannot handle the job and the members of the Security Council are reluctant to back away from doing something to relieve an humanitarian crisis, which has captured the attention of CNN.  Everyone seems to have his eye on his own reputation or standing in the public eye more than on the humanitarian tragedy that is unfolding.  The result is that the United Nations is discredited and its future ability to help devalued and people suffer.