There is a troubling sense of deja vu in the tragedy befalling the U.N. peacekeeping effort in Sierra Leone (it is really peace enforcement, a euphemism for getting sucked into someone else’s war). And more than just putting at risk future U.N. operations, recent events pose vexing questions about how to manage chaos on the periphery of the globalized world system.

Once again, it has been a case of noble intentions going awry. Earlier this month, rebels took 500 mostly African peacekeepers hostage, stole their weapons and killed others as a peace accord broke down. In Bosnia, peacekeepers were chained to fences. Then there was Somalia. We won’t even bring up Rwanda. One may charitably say the United Nations is a slow learner. Remember Karl Marx’s adage: History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. By the fifth or sixth time, it should be obvious that the U.N. has a bit of a credibility problem.

This most recent in a growing list of embarrassing debacles should spark real soul-searching about questions of “humanitarian intervention,” and perhaps even the wider philosophy behind assertive peacekeeping — “collective security,” the original goal of the U.N. It is not just a question of the utility or irrelevance of the U.N.; part of the problem is that member states tend to dump problems that are “too hard” on the U.N. Security Council to get them off their own plates. The larger question is whether that phantom “the international community” really exists. Or whether the idea of collective security — a threat to anyone is a threat to everyone — can work in a world of nation-states.

The case of Sierra Leone is a classic example of what the U.N. must either avoid or acquire new capabilities to address if the march of folly is to be stopped. When the government of Ahmed Kabbah signed a peace accord last July with rebels led by the thuggish Foday Sankoh, few were convinced that a particularly savage civil war was over. The U.N. mission was to monitor the implementation of the peace accord, protect civilians against the threat of violence, safeguard government offices and oversee disarmament.

The war has effectively terrorized and maimed millions of civilians and destroyed the country as a society and nation-state. The government controls little outside the capitol of Freetown. The rebel Revolutionary United Front routinely mutilates children and destroys anything identified with the state, including government buildings, schools and clinics. Even a power-sharing arrangement including four ministries, immunity in likely war-crimes trials and management of resources did not persuade more than a fraction of the RUF troops to turn in their weapons.

The rebels continued to terrorize civilians, act as warlords controlling diamond mines and harass U.N. peacekeepers, even before escalating to the most recent outrage. This should have been a red flag for the U.N. to either pull out or strengthen its forces substantially while it had the chance. But with its credibility and the fate of some 8,700 troops, mostly from Nigeria and Kenya, on the line, the U.N. is considering beefing up its forces, with U.S. support, to impose order. This smacks of too little, too late.

It also flies in the face of U.N. peacekeeping experience. Briefly, the U.N. has tended to succeed when it limits itself to traditional peacekeeping — separating parties who have mutually consented to its role and implementing agreements in a neutral fashion. The U.N. has played this role in the Sinai and in Cyprus; for its efforts in the latter, it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988.

But with the unleashing of pent-up local and ethnic hostilities at the end of the Cold War, there was an explosion of U.N. peacekeeping — 37 out of 50 U.N. peacekeeping operations since 1948 occurred after 1988. (Currently there are 15 peacekeeping operations worldwide, with a $2 billion budget and 27,000 military and civilian personnel.) Some of these missions grew more complex over time, changing from peacekeeping to enforcement, with the U.N. then trying to impose peace among warring parties, invariably benefiting one side or the other. Such missions — Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and now Sierra Leone — have proved disastrous.

This is where the collective-security problem comes in. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan says that the purpose of the U.N is “to prevent conflict where we can, to put a stop to it when it has broken out or, when neither of those things is possible, at least to contain it.”

The problem is that all nations do not view their security as equally threatened, and thus are unwilling to act. Here the morality gets more complex. What American parent, say, is willing to have a son or daughter sent to stop African thugs from killing each other when there is no vital U.S. national interest at stake?

It becomes still more complex when failing states such as Sierra Leone or Somalia are involved, because no amount of peacekeeping can get to the source of the problem. Moreover, the U.N. does not now have the military capability to effectively take on the rebels.

This should encourage a cautious response to the latest proposed U.S.-led U.N. adventure: the idea of sending a few thousand peacekeepers into Congo, a vast area two-thirds the size of the U.S., which is engulfed in a regionwide war. This is a good moment for lesson-learning. First, unless a capable modern military force, with ample intelligence, logistics, command and control, air support and firepower can be assembled, enforcement is likely to fail. Peace enforcement has succeeded militarily in the Balkans because U.S./NATO forces were — and remain — involved.

Training and equipping a standing African brigade built around key nations like Nigeria and South Africa and capable of wielding overwhelming force (with U.S. logistic and intelligence support) should be possible, and would be a smart investment for the major Western powers: Regional powers have a larger stake in the outcome, so collective security stands more of a chance.

How to deal with failing states poses a still larger problem. Messy and imperfect as they were, in the cases of Cambodia, Kosovo and East Timor there was no pretense of sovereignty: These places are administered as wards of the U.N. until they are ready for self-governance. Unless such drastic steps are taken, it is difficult to see how to justify halfhearted interventions in which the savior risks becoming the victim.

Africans have a point when they argue that the West only applies its idealism to white people. They are justified in blaming colonialism for some of their difficulties. But Africa’s problems are in large part of its own making. If Africans want international help in ending the near-incessant violence they are inflicting on each other, they may have to accept a kind of neocolonialism, becoming temporary protectorates of the U.N. (albeit with efforts led by Africans). In the end, U.N. idealism notwithstanding, life is unfair and not all problems have solutions — even if the horrors are on CNN.

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