The Magazine


Feb 26, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 23 • By JEREMY RABKIN
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Republicans have been doing a lot of snarling against the United Nations in the past year. And Republican congressional leaders are promising to translate this mood into legislation over the next few months. Some of the energy on these issues reflects legitimate concerns. A lot of it surely is motivated, too, by political calculations in an election year. Even when it comes to campaign tactics, though, it would be nice if Republicans remembered that their candidate will reach the White House only by defeating Bill Clinton, not Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The Republican penchant for running against the U. N. secretary general threatens to make serious issues look entirely silly.

Take the case of Army Specialist Michael New, who was court-martialed and discharged from the military at the end of January. New had refused to wear U. N. insignia and a U. N. beret when his unit was deployed to a U. N. peace- keeping force. The army found him guilty of insubordinate conduct. Within 24 hours, 15 congressmen (almost all Republicans) sponsored a resolution insisting that the army had no authority to require troops to wear U. N. insignia and accordingly condemning New's court-martial conviction as " groundles" In the Senate, there were demands for speedy action on a bill -- cosponsored by Majority Leader Bob Dole and Majority Whip Trent Lott, with some two dozen others (all Republicans) -- protecting members of the armed forces from any order to wear U. N. insignia.

The underlying issue here is far from frivolous. Can the president place American forces under U. N. field command, as Clinton has done in Macedonia? Can resolutions of the Security Council authorize deployment of U. S. troops to war zones without direct authorization from the Congress, as has happened now in Bosnia, and earlier in Somalia and Haiti? These are very serious questions.

Congress tried to address them in a set of restrictions on U. N. commitments included in the defense appropriations bill, which President Clinton vetoed in December. The debate deserves to be reopened. Carping about shoulder patches or hat styles is not a serious way to do that. And it is hard to believe Republicans want these issues to be raised by encouraging civil disobedience in the ranks of the American military.

But striking at empty symbols has become a reflex among Republican leaders. At the same time they were waving the flag on behalf of Michael New, congressional leaders launched an absurd overreaction to the suggestion of the U. N. secretary general that the United Nations might seek to remedy its chronic budget crisis with a tax on international air travel. Notions of this kind have been kicking around for a long time. And Boutros-Ghali merely mentioned the possibility in passing, in the context of a lengthy interview with the BBC. Only the Washington Times picked up the story in the United States, but its initial coverage, in the last week of January, was enough to provoke a mini-tempest in Washington. Sen. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, promised hearings. Sen. Dole promised a new bill and indeed introduced the bill within less than a week.

Dole's bill would cut off all U. S. funding to the U. N. if it tries to impose a tax or fee on U. S. citizens, tries to borrow money from international institutions like the World Bank, or so much as engages in "any effort to develop, advocate, promote, or publicize any proposal concerning taxation or fees" on U. S. persons. But the U. N. has no authority to impose taxes and no way of granting itself such authority. The IMF and World Bank have already disavowed the authority to make loans to the U. N. and, given the weighted voting in these bodies, will not change their position without U. S. concurrence. And the Clinton administration itself has announced its opposition to such initiatives. Nor can the U. N. force the United States to collect any taxes on its behalf.

On the other hand, if other countries want to tax foreign airline traffc passing through their airports, the United States has no easy way of stopping them from doing so, whatever the U. N. says or does not say. Nor can the United States stop other countries from making additional contributions to the U. N., whether from such "international" taxes or from more traditional revenue sources. But such contributions will never make the U. N. free of dependence on American contributions, which are still much in arrears from past withholding.