DEALING WITH THE UN….There are two things guaranteed to send foreign policy hawks into a lather: favorable mentions of either Jimmy Carter or the United Nations. Jimmy hasn’t been much in the news lately, so I’ll have to make do with the United Nations today.

So, three cheers for the United Nations? Not quite. Any serious discussion of the UN has to start with acknowledgment of its weaknesses: it supports a huge and not always efficient bureacracy; its policy making is often hostage to a group of overrepresented small countries, many of them dictatorships; and it is rife with corruption and opacity when it comes to disbursing money.

In other words, it’s a lot like the U.S. Senate. However, also like the Senate, it’s what we have and we need to make the best of it.

A few days ago I suggested that since there were big problems with both a prolonged American presence in Iraq and with a quick pullout, a strong role for the UN would be a good compromise. What I meant, of course, was that a true multinational presence is the best long run solution, and since the UN is the only serious multinational organization we have with experience in nation building and peacekeeping, the UN it is.

David Adesnik of OxBlog politely suggested that I must be nuts for suggesting this, and pointed in particular to the UN’s oil-for-food program as a “living embodiment of opacity, bureaucratic incompetence, greed and one-sided politicization.”

So what about that? Well, one of the reasons I like the Economist so much is that it’s a convenient way of checking my liberal instincts against an intelligent, moderately conservative point of view. Here’s what they have to say about the economic reconstruction of Iraq:

Given the risk that political cronies of the government will run any ?arm’s-length? company, there may be a strong case for putting the oil and the revenues from it under international administration, perhaps for several years. Such a scheme might be built on the existing, and admittedly far from perfect, UN Iraqi oil-for-food (OFFP) programme.

I think that’s a practical approach. The oil-for-food program could usefully use some reform, something that we could be instrumental in forcing through, but it’s still a good starting place.

In a broader sense, David’s other complaints (I’ll try to summarize fairly, but go read the whole post for yourself) are that (a) Iraqis and other Arabs won’t really mind our presence that much because our actions will show us to be good guys, and (b) dealing with the UN is a pain in the ass.

As to the first, I think it’s wildly optimistic to think that a large and prolonged U.S. presence won’t excite tremendous opposition in the medium and long term. And as to the second, I have no argument at all. Political processes are always a pain, and they usually lead to compromises that nobody is entirely happy with. However, they also usually lead to compromises that everyone can live with, and that’s what we’re after here.

I grew up in Orange County, so believe me, I know how much conservatives hate the UN. But a blinkered American approach that works on the assumption that our actions are so altruistic that ? given just a little bit of time ? the rest of the world will come to approve of them, is simply naive, especially so with George Bush running the show, a leader who is despised and distrusted by virtually everyone outside the U.S.

America has always been most successful when it’s acted as part of an alliance ? think World War II, the Marshall Plan, and the Cold War ? and has been least successful when acting alone ? think Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War, and Nicaragua.

The future of the Middle East and the wider war on terrorism is too important for Americans to think we can go it alone. Our options are simply too limited if we take this approach, and the more insular we become the more likely it is that we become a target not just of terrorists but of the rest of the world as well. Anyone who is serious about this fight, I think, has to grit their teeth and accept an unpleasant truth: we can only succeed if we work with the rest of the world. And until something better comes along, that means dealing with the UN.