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The recent death of U.N. aid workers in Timor was a tragedy. The reprehensible action has rightly drawn international condemnation. The perpetrators will hopefully be caught, tried and punished.

But the criminal act also flows from the intersection of three sets of false and woolly premises whose consequences put U.N. workers at growing physical risk. The United Nations is increasingly being seen as the enemy by forces engaged in brutal civil wars; outsiders demand impossibly exacting standards from Third World troops; and nongovernment organizations are not answerable for the consequences of their pressure tactics.

The U.N. was designed to keep world peace, if necessary by going to war against aggressors. The transient Cold War hostility and the more enduring structural realities of diverging major power interests put paid to the rhetoric of indivisible peace. As the system of collective security proved elusive, but conflicts did not abate, creative solutions were found to inject a stabilizing U.N. presence through unarmed and impartial U.N. peacekeepers who conducted holding rather than military operations.

Since the end of the Cold War, most conflicts occur within countries, not among them. They reflect weaknesses in state capacity. Complex humanitarian operations are at the cutting edge of the U.N.’s core function in the new world disorder. Their well-publicized failures in the Balkans, Somalia, Rwanda, Angola and Sierra Leone have damaged the core credibility of the organization.

In all these cases, the predicament of peacekeeping soldiers on the ground is that they are unable to move forward into an unwinnable battle, unable to stay put taking casualties for no purpose, and unable to withdraw without damaging national and U.N. credibility.

Turning a peacekeeping mission into a fighting force creates two problems. First, it calls for a long commitment. Foreign armies, including those fighting under the U.N., cannot impose peace on civil wars without also imposing foreign rule: This was the logic of colonialism.

Second, they cannot join the fray without taking sides in the civil war. But to take sides is to become aligned to one and therefore the enemy of the other. If the faction against whom the U.N. takes up arms was genteel and law-abiding, then the U.N. would not need to resort to such action in the first place. Yet when U.N. personnel come under attack, the organization does not have the means to defend them. If it calls on mainly Western armies for protection, it will be seen even more as a tool of the West.

The belief persists in many modern military forces that peacekeeping is for wimps, not for real soldiers, even though the most common form of insecurity today — wars within state borders — calls for complex peacekeeping operations as the tool of choice by the international community. Those with the military capacity lack the political will to take part in robust U.N. peacekeeping; those with the will lack the means.

Second, outsiders may have good intentions but lack full appreciation of the ground realities in many deeply scarred countries. In his new volume of memoirs (“From the Third World to First: The Singapore Story”), former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew writes that the goverment of Australian Prime Minister John Howard made a series of strategic errors starting with the letter in December 1998 to President B. J. Habibie urging self-determination for East Timor. Australia failed to grasp the complexities of the issues involved, and the unpredictability of the consequences which flowed from Habibie acceding to the request. (But the later commitment of troops by Australia earns Lee’s praise.) The repercussions are still being felt today.

Third, many governments have also begun to react harshly to the growing influence of unaccountable, single-issue and militant NGOs. The curtailment of Australian cooperation with U.N. human-rights investigations is but the latest example of mounting exasperation among governments of the access to the U.N. system enjoyed by what they see as fundamentally irresponsible NGOs. They have increasing influence on many governments and international organizations. But they are not accountable to anyone. Influence without accountability can be a recipe for inviting irresponsible behavior.

Indonesia is a country with highly underdeveloped institutions of state. Virulent international criticisms have weakened the Jakarta government even further. The government lacks the capacity to provide the public goods of law, order and safety. To privilege the security forces in creating state structures and institutions would give them even more power than they have already.

Jakarta has a point when it says that the world cannot require its military to disarm the militias while at the same time refusing to help arm and train the Indonesian military. However much of an alibi this might be for inexcusable inaction, it remains true that to demand first-world standards of professionalism, efficiency, effectiveness and probity from Third World armies is dangerous and impossible. Some degree of ill-discipline, incompetence and brutality is inevitable in Third World contexts.

If the Indonesian security forces do impose law and order using Third World techniques of repression, we demand accountability that once again can only be delivered by first-world institutions. Heads we win, tails they lose.

When the illusions of naive armchair idealists are married to the uncompromising demands of dogmatic activists, and neither of them has any real comprehension of the horrors of a world that is totally alien to their experience, the result is a policy predicated on the belief that if anything can go right, it will. Sadly the reverse is more often true.

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