All in the Family

Former Adjunct Fellow

"Let freedom reign," wrote President Bush as Iraq regained sovereignty Monday.

"Today, the secretary-general welcomes the state of Iraq back into the family of independent and sovereign nations," said a United Nations statement.

In the gap between those two statements, you can see the world of difference that lies between the U.S. and the U.N. in approaching the worst troubles of our time. For America, and Mr. Bush, the struggles now upon us are basically about freedom, and rule of, by and for the people. For the U.N., and Mr. Annan, it is all about paternalism, consensus, family. And I'm sorry to say that the family that springs first to mind has a lot less to do with Gramps, Grandma and the kids than with the Mafia clan of TV fiction fame, the Sopranos. And not just because both families claim tax-free status for their rackets.

Mr. Annan was speaking metaphorically, of course, referring to the U.N.'s grand gathering of 191 member states. But he did bring to my mind a vision of what you'd find, were you to drop by the U.N. family manor, roam the halls, peer into the parlors and start opening doors, not to mention closets.

First, let's head for the hearth, where, ensconced at the cozy core of this grand estate, we'll find the five elders, the veto-wielding members of the Security Council. There, of course, you'll run into the wayward U.S. and United Kingdom, who so disturbed the U.N. last year by chasing Saddam Hussein right out of his well-worn seat and down a spider-hole in the cellar. Nearby, counting his cash, is Russia's president Vladimir Putin, who strove so hard to preserve Iraq, uninterrupted, as a family business--Saddam's family, that is, and Russia's enormous Oil for Food business. Then there's Frère Jacques Chirac, who toiled so passionately last year in the U.N. kitchens, trying to stop America from cooking up any freedom fries in all that Iraqi oil. And, lest we forget, there's also China's Hu Jintao, who amid his many daily chores of jailing democratic dissidents and threatening Chinese democracy on Taiwan, found time last year to oppose the liberation of Iraq.

And those are some of the more tractable family members. Take a stroll down the Middle East wing, with its terrorist nurseries. There you can find the fascist clerics of Iran playing nuclear peek-a-boo with the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency. Visit the Syria salon, where President Bashar Assad treasures his countries democratic dissidents so much that he insists on keeping them under lock and key. If you peer a little further into Mr. Assad's quarters, you may also notice a foot poking out from that body wrapped up in a rug. It belongs to what was once the sovereign state of Lebanon.

It's hardly necessary to visit the Saudis, of course. Just plunk yourself down anywhere, and they'll send their Wahhabi preachers to visit you.

If you notice some packing crates in the corridor, they probably belong to Moammar Gadhafi, who's moving right now to nicer quarters. Having set off more than his quota of terrorist bombs, he was on the outs with the U.N. clan for a while, and had to go live in the attic--except when they let him downstairs in early 2003 so Libya could chair, of course, the U.N. Human Rights Commission. But over the past year, Gadhafi has rendered up enough of his nuclear toys so that even the U.S. and the U.K. have invited him to move back into a ground-floor suite. That's nice, except crumpled up in those packing crates, and weighed down by stacks of Gadhafi's little green books, are the five million people of Libya.

Every family has its cranks, of course, and you'll want to be a little careful about bumping into North Korea's Kim Jong Il. He's been out in the garden lately, tending his gulag and threatening to set off a nuclear bomb unless he gets a bigger pocket allowance from his rich relatives. The U.N. is pretty much OK with that, as long as he's happy to hang around in the backyard. The trouble is, Kim sometimes comes in to play with folks like the Pakistanis and Iranians--sort of the way he used to drop by Gadhafi's attic.

If you have more time, you might also want to look in on Sudan, though do not be too much disturbed if you see people dying there by the hundreds of thousands. No less a patriarch than Mr. Annan himself has assured us it is not genocide. And if you plan to stay for a long weekend, by all means take tea in the parlor with the Excellencies of Burma, Cuba, Laos, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam and Zimbabwe--most of them don't get nearly the attention they deserve.

A final word. Watch out for the household staff. They're in something of a flutter right now, trying to keep track of who's investigating whom about what. You may see former Oil for Food chief Benon Sevan wandering the halls, still wondering why he's had so little praise lately for running an Iraq relief program from which no more than $10 billion or so was embezzled by Saddam--or maybe $40 billion, tops. And remember to whisper when in the library, where Mr. Annan's scribes are even now busy crafting the next round of tributes to the U.N. family, though freedom does not figure large in the household lexicon. More typical was Mr. Annan's call on Monday, for "all Iraqis to come together in a spirit of national unity and reconciliation, through a process of open dialogue and consensus-building, to lay down secure foundations for the new Iraq"--a process Mr. Annan somehow manages to imply was already under way under Saddam, until, to the U.N.'s great annoyance, it was interrupted for 15 months by the U.S.-led coalition.

If, after the U.N. tour, you need a little fresh air, come on out to the street, where Mr. Bush on Monday addressed the real meaning of sovereignty: "After decades of brutal rule by a terror regime, the Iraqi people have their country back."

There's no question that for Iraq there are rough times ahead, and much yet hangs in balance. Recovering from decades of hideous abuse takes time, as any family counselor can tell you. But for all Iraq's troubles, at some point in its absence these past 15 months from Mr. Annan's household, Iraqis acquired a free press, a pluralistic government, and the first hope in generations of freedom. If that is what leaving the U.N. fold for 15 months can do for a nation, maybe more of Mr. Annan's U.N. family should go AWOL.

This article appeared on on June 30, 2004.