The End of U.N. Peacekeeping

Foreign Policy in Sierra Leone Has Had Dismal Results

Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World.

The dismal experience of Sierra Leone has struck yet another blow against United Nations peacekeeping. America’s U.N. Ambassador, Richard Holbrooke, plaintively argues that Sierra Leone “is not a metaphor for UN peacekeeping.” But how could it be otherwise?

Even U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan admits that the U.N. can’t do the job. Naturally, his answer is to strengthen U.N. operations.

Sierra Leone is one of a long list of African slaughterhouses: Angola, Burundi, Chad, Congo, Ethiopia, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Zaire. The dead have ranged up into the millions. In none of them has the U.N. stopped the killing, let alone resolved the underlying conflicts.

Diplomatic pressure, expressions of international outrage, and U.N. missions have all failed. People die, refugees flee, children starve, societies disintegrate.

The only strategy that has worked is real military force. In 1995, Sierra Leone’s government was tottering before an offensive of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). For an estimated $35 million, the regime hired the firm Executive Outcomes, made up of South African mercenaries. With the aid of forces from Ghana and Nigeria, Executive Outcomes routed the RUF.

But one requirement of the political “settlement” pushed by the United States was to send Executive Outcomes home. Unfortunately, U.N. peacekeepers proved to be an inadequate substitute.

Earlier this year the RUF seized hundreds of Zambian peacekeepers, stealing their equipment and even their uniforms. Then the guerrillas, with their trademark of chopping off the hands and arms of helpless civilians, began marching on Freetown, the nation’s capital, sparking panic—until 800 British soldiers arrived to evacuate Westerners and dig in to defend the city, after which the RUF faded back into the bush.

Indeed, when London announced that its troops’ work was done, Sierra Leone’s government begged Britain to reconsider. Unable to defend itself and unwilling to trust the U.N., President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah tried to throw his nation back into the arms of its old colonial master.

Secretary General Annan and others routinely blame the United States for the U.N.’s failures since Washington has fallen behind in paying its dues, particularly peacekeeping assessments. But as Thomas Jacobson of the Virginia-based Freedom Alliance points out, total unreimbursed “U.S. support of UN activities, including personnel, financial support, military hardware and coordinated activities” for U.N. operations, ran $8.8 billion last year and $25.2 billion back through 1992. As of the end of last year, America was providing nearly 14,000 military and police personnel in the 19 ongoing U.N. observation and peacekeeping missions.

Washington currently stations military forces in 141 countries. Most of those deployments are small (one soldier in Mauritius, for instance). But it also maintains large war-fighting garrisons, backed by disproportionate military outlays and an outsize force, throughout Asia and Europe. For this Americans receive little thanks.

Given his organization’s inherent flaws, Mr. Annan really isn’t talking about the U.N. when he says that “We have to rethink how we equip troops and prepare them for these operations. In this way, they will be able to depend on themselves and do what they have to do.” He is talking about being able to call on real soldiers from real countries using real weapons.

That is, Mr. Annan wants to be able to deploy forces that can fight and kill. He wants to forcibly prevent and suppress conflict and impose a political settlement on the combatants.

As retired Australian General John Sanderson, who headed U.N. operations in Cambodia, puts it: “you either go to war or go home.” It is a more coherent view, but a much more dubious operation.

It would entangle nations in potentially endless bloodletting in conflicts with no relevance to their security. It would risk soldiers’ lives for interests unrelated to those of their own political communities. It would turn Western states into new colonial powers.

In many cases there is no good side to support: Not any of the three factions in the Liberian civil war. Not José dos Santos’ communist Angolan government or Jonas Savimbi’s Unita opposition. Neither Mobutu Sese Seko nor Laurent Kabila in Zaire (now the Congo). None of the multitude of warlords in Somalia.

In these sorts of cases, writes columnist Charles Krauthammer, “the only serious way to intervene is to occupy. Take over the country, reorder the society, establish new institutions and create the basis for leaving one day.” In short, if it’s serious enough to have your soldiers kill and be killed, it’s serious enough to stick around and finish the job.

In fact, American University professor George Ayittey has proposed just such a U.N. trusteeship for Sierra Leone. That nation “is a failed state, its government long ago hijacked by gangsters,” he writes. So create a five- to ten-year occupation to fix the country.

Although formal sponsorship by the U.N., or, alternatively, suggests Mr. Ayittey, the Organization for African Unity, might reduce the obvious colonial overtones, such a plan could only work through sustained military support by the handful of Western states with sizable and effective militaries. Count out Germany and Japan, which are reluctant to act for historical reasons, and other countries, like Brazil, Poland, Romania, Spain, and Ukraine, which have relatively large armies of varying effectiveness, but which are unlikely to volunteer for long-term occupation duty in Africa and Asia. You are down to the United States, Britain, France, Italy, and maybe India, Turkey, and Russia.

And while an international coalition might conceivably agree to garrison Sierra Leone for years, it would be unlikely to simultaneously occupy Angola, Burma, Congo, Kashmir, Liberia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and the score of other nations that would equally warrant trusteeship. The American republic is particularly ill-suited to turning its 18-year-old men and women into perpetual guardians of a far-flung empire.

Nor would it ever be evident when such trusteeships could end. After all, the former colonies went through decades of a process that, theoretically at least, should have prepared them for independence. Most of them were freed with a full panoply of economic, legal, and political institutions. That didn’t prevent them from imploding.

Nor is there any guarantee that a new cycle of five or ten years of foreign rule would be sufficient to counteract the underlying factors, especially past brutality and hatreds, that have sparked so many civil and guerrilla wars. Indeed, memories are long and often outlast even lengthy periods of seeming peace and stability—witness the Balkans.

Yes, we should rethink peacekeeping, as Secretary General Annan desires. But the answer is not, as he thinks, to create a U.N. rapid deployment force and prepare it to fight.

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