Friday, August 18, 2006

A Tragedy From Iraq

Just under a year ago, I found myself outside the door of the United Nations (yes, without realising). Given that I had little else to do that afternoon, I decided to go inside and have a look round. Understandably, security at the complex is tight and access is limited. I was able, nevertheless, to have a good look round a few displays into the history of the UN and its work, before resisting the temptation of sending a postcard with a United Nations stamp and postmark.

The displays were a PR masterpiece. One in particular sticks in my mind. It was a collection of photographs of various children in developing countries. A boy from the favelas in Brazil; a girl who wants to escape the sex industry in Thailand by becoming a cook; a child in Africa who has lost much of his family to AIDS. Each picture had an explanation of its place in the child's life, coupled with an explanation of the UN's Millennium Development Goals.

The use of pictures to illustrate progress on these goals is very apt. After all, pictures can show whatever you want them to show. Bloggers have demonstrated that quite aptly in the past week with their juxtaposition of BBC and Channel 4 reporting from Lebanon. How much the Millennium Development Goals have translated into real action affected the lives of the children depicted, I don't know. But the UN definitely talks a good game.

International institutions have not covered themselves in glory in the last five years, however. Since 9/11, the UN has proved utterly incapable of making progress on key international issues. After the genocide in Rwanda, the UN admitted action should have been taken more swiftly, and vowed "never again". Yet when crisis struck in Darfur, nobody was able to organise the necessary action to create the sort of force to prevent massacres there.

Iraq, of course, was the archetypal issue that proved how organisationally weak the UN is. Far from being able to achieve any settlement, instead the selfish interests of both sides saw an institution paralysed. The need for both Bush and Chirac to posture in front of the world's media prevented the chance of any compromise, or any UN-sanctioned plan for future progress in dealing with Saddam's regime.

It's a pattern that has been repeated yet again in the UN's handling of the current crisis in the Middle East. Pious calls for both sides to end the fighting have been heard, many heartstrings have been tugged at, but when it comes to cold, hard, action, it took over a month for any sort of plan to be agreed to.

Then again, when you think of Kofi Annan being the Secretary General, it's hardly surprising, is it? He comes across as a bit of a granddad figure. A pleasant chap, who doesn't offend anyone. When it comes down to it, though, no-one is really going to listen to him when it comes to a plan of action. His respect, you see, doesn't come from his actions. It comes from having been promoted in an organisation out of an ability to make friends.

Tony Blair, on the other hand, has staked his personal and political reputation on the line when it matters - and as a result, his character has been crucified. His chances of retiring from British politics to take up a position in charge of an international organisation are now slim to none. Iraq has poisoned his reputation so much that he could not command the respect of the UN organisation.

Yet if you were appointing someone to be the Chief Executive of a business, would anyone in their right mind appoint Annan over Blair? Annan is a grandad, moaning down the pub that "these bloody kids these days, they do nothing but hang out on street corners causing trouble", but lacking the desire or the commitment or the ability to make a positive difference to the community. Blair, for all his faults, would get something done - organising and running a football team, for example. Sure, he might be a teensy bit sanctimonious, but at the end of the day, communities - neighbourhood or international - need people like him.

Governments need people who aren't necessarily popular, but get things done, and get people to talk to each other. It is a crying shame Peter Mandelson is currently causing trouble in Brussels - for he is a man who will get intractably opposed groups talking to each other. That's why his appointment as NI Secretary was a masterstroke of Blair's. Blair is a similar character. He won't shirk from a fight, but his commitment and his passion (which are undoubtedly evident in foreign affairs) mean that he will try every last avenue to get things done. Whereas Annan would stand impassively by, trying desperately to pass the buck.

Nice words do not get you anywhere in the arena of international diplomacy. A well-presented statement may attract media coverage, but it won't effect necessary change. What's needed is someone who will force people to sit together and lock them there until they come out with a settlement. Who's prepared to forego diplomatic niceties to get something done. Blair could have been that man. Unfortunately, Annan's successor will likely be someone else insipid and uninspiring.