WASHINGTON -- One of Richard Holbrooke's many talents is his blunt ability to explain complicated diplomatic and military situations in words understandable to the most uninformed of listeners -- even including members of Congress.
"There is a train wreck coming up," said the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "If the United Nations fails at a second chance at peacekeeping, I don't think that they'll get a third chance."
That was certainly understandable to the 100 or so invited guests at a U.N.-sponsored symposium called "Challenges and Priorities for the United Nations." The politicians, diplomats, professors and such sitting around a giant U-shaped table had no trouble understanding the dilemma Holbrooke was addressing: "The U.N. peacekeeping operation was simply not up to the job."
U.N. peacekeeping is on trial, as it were, because of failures to prevent massacres of innocents in recent years, most particularly in Bosnia and Rwanda. Now the international organization's good intentions are being tested in potentially more difficult tests in Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone and the Congo.
Then Holbrooke said he did understand the problem of the United Nations: "the Holds!"
Most everybody there nodded. Some of us looked down or sneaked glances around the room. Maybe he meant "the Huns," but the Germans are not threatening anybody these days. Who are the terrible "Holds" threatening peace in the world? "Any one of them can stop anything at anytime." Then he said the words again: "the Holds."
Holbrooke stepped down, saying he was a friend of the United Nations, which he certainly is and which he explained in terms of national self-interest: "Because of the United Nations, limited American commitment can lever the world." That's the way Franklin D. Roosevelt, the father of the United Nations, wanted it. The core values of the U.N. are democracy, human rights and free trade written into the organization's laws and bylaws by the victorious Yanks after World War II.
Other worthies, like Richard Haass of the Brookings Institution, said smart things: "You cannot expect the United Nations to do the things that a free-standing sovereign nation can do. ... When there is not consensus in the Security Council" -- among the big nations -- "the United Nations can only authorize other players, or step aside." Princeton Lyman of the Overseas Development Council added: "It is almost as if the U.N. was being set up for failure in places like the Congo."
Why? How? By whom? "By the Holds," other people said. Oh, of course.
The estimable Lee Hamilton, former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, spoke of the Holds, saying he had once ordered staff to find out where they came from -- and his people could not find out. The Holds were just always there.
Who are the Holds? No one ever said from the head of the great table. At a break, I whispered to someone I knew, "Who are the Holds?"
"Judd Gregg," he said,looking at me with pity in his eyes.
"Senator Gregg?" I said. "From New Hampshire?"
"Yes. He doesn't like the idea of peacekeeping. I don't think he likes the idea of the United Nations."
"So, he's holding up U.S. contributions to peacekeeping in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor and the Congo -- $142 million all together. More than we paid for arrears to the U.N. last December."
I did not make that up. In fact, Senator Gregg is also holding another $177 million in projected peacekeeping costs in those troubled countries. Any member of appropriating committees in the U.S. Congress can put a "hold" on authorized expenditures without giving any reason. Congressional etiquette forbids revealing the name of the member who is the Hold. In this case it happens that people know it is Gregg, who has refused to talk to Holbrooke or anyone else about it. None of their business.
Knowing that, I realized what people there meant when they said the U.N. was being set up for failure. It does not have the resources to do what the big countries are telling it to do. I assume the Hold, Gregg, wants failure -- even in Kosovo, as Holbrooke said, where American lives were at risk.
I realized then what Donald McHenry, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had meant earlier when he said: "President Clinton made a mistake when he chose to fight for the U.N. in Washington. He will always lose in Washington." Lee Hamilton agreed with that, saying, "What I would like to see is political leaders here supporting the United Nations as much as the American people do."
The American people don't matter in this one. "The Hold" matters. It's all up to Judd Gregg.
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