The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Friday, December 03, 2004  

Mainstreaming Extremism

It’s no secret the neoconservatives despise the United Nations. The theme has been a perennial hobbyhorse in their magazines, columns, and other writings since at least the time of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s tenure as U.S. ambassador. Lately the gang has whipped itself into a veritable frenzy, issuing countless anti-U.N. screeds under the cover of attacks on Security General Kofi Annan and the so-called oil-for-food scandal.

Leading the charge, but by no means alone in the endeavor: The Wall Street Journal’s ever-more fringey editorial pages, the New York Times op-ed page in the person of William Safire, and in Commentary magazine, largely through the writings of Joshua Muravchik, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Safire’s been subsisting on a diet of oil-and-food with an obsession reminiscent of his delusions regarding the Clintons and Whitewater. The neoconservative libertarian’s most recent exposition is “‘My Son, My Son,’” published November 29. That piece, however, was merely an extension of an ongoing stream of near-consciousness that includes; “U.N. Obstructs Justice,” November 15; “Kofigate Gets Going,” July 12; “Tear Down This U.N. Stonewall,” June 14; “Scandal With No Friends,”, April 19; “Follow-Up to Kofigate,” March 29; and “Scandal at the U.N.,” March 17.

Impressive, in its own way. Does anyone else foresee a collection of essays -– with a brief introduction by the author, no doubt -– on the horizon?

Muravchik’s essays in Commentary are argued at a much higher level, with a greater focus on the U.N.’s systemic problems which even those sympathetic to the organization recognize are legion, and I emphasize that Muravchik is a far more persuasive writer than Safire, and makes many valid criticisms of the institution. Among the pieces by Muravchik published in Commentary on the issue are: “The Case Against the U.N.,” November 2004; “The U.N. on the Loose,” July 2002; and “What Use is the U.N.?” April 1996. Also in Commentary: “The Oil-for-Food Scam: What Did Kofi Annan Know, and When Did He Know It?” written by Claudia Rosett, who, as it happens, is a columnist for the aforementioned Wall Street Journal, which on December 1 published her essay, “Secretary and Son.” (Additional Journal articles by Rosett may be found here.)

The neoconservatives have been dominating this debate for months, but it appears the jig is up. The December 6 issue of The Nation includes “UN Oil for Food ‘Scandal’,” in which Joy Gordon pokes numerous holes in the neoconventional wisdom.

And twice just today the neoconservatives’ not altogether subtle strategy of attacking, undermining even, the U.N. through Annan has been exposed by James Traub in the Los Angeles Times (“Lynch Mob’s Real Target Is the U.N., Not Annan”) and Joe Conason at (“John Birch Lives”).

Traub rightly invokes the image of “a right-wing mob,” and calls the oil-for-food scandal a “godsend,” and well-timed at that, to conservatives who long have harbored grudges against the U.N., rancor exacerbated by the Security Council’s refusal to join the Coalition of the Pushed and Shoved. Traub writes:

For those who want the U.N. simply to go away, physically as well as politically, the oil-for-food scandal proves that the entire enterprise is irremediable. . . . What conservatives cannot accept, at bottom, is the premise that an international body, even one over which the United States exercises enormous sway, should be allowed to pass on the legitimacy or legality of American actions. And if you can’t accept that, you can’t accept the U.N.

Conason is also onto their act:

For the moment, conservative critics are focused on U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. They’ve demanded his resignation as punishment for corruption and mismanagement of Iraq’s “oil-for-food” program. . . . Behind the attacks on Annan lies the broader purpose of bringing down the U.N. itself. Once praised by the likes of former Sen. Jesse Helms for implementing fiscal reform, the secretary general provoked deep enmity on the right by opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and by criticizing its illegality again last September during the U.S. presidential campaign. Worse yet, U.N. inspectors made the terrible mistake of being correct about the nonexistent “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq.

For the Bush administration and its conservative allies, the U.N. represents embarrassment and obstruction. Seeing no value in debating and discussing world problems with lesser nations, they regard the U.N. as nothing but an unworthy obstacle to the exercise of American power. To them, the world body symbolizes all that they hate about multilateralism and diplomacy.

Conason reminds us of the John Birch Society’s longstanding campaign against the U.N.: “What was lunacy in 1962 is no saner now,” he notes. Yes, extremism has gone mainstream.

[Post-publication addendum (December 6): Jeff Jacoby is getting in on the act.]

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