IN THE NEWS
There are times when you want to throw a chair at the TV, or rip the newspaper to shreds. The United Nations has inspired some personal moments like these. However, I'd rather have the UN than not, and this news item about East Timor is a good example of why we need the UN.
East Timor's awful civil war ground on for year after bloody year because, in large part, of poor publicity. Few people could point to East Timor on a map, and fewer still could explain the issues in that irredentist war. The Timorese, in seeking their independence from Indonesia, lost upwards of one-third of their population over a 25-year period. Like all casualty figures, you can qualify that number to an extent, questioning the accuracy of the gross statistics themselves, or factoring in the number of people who died from natural causes. However, with all the provisos thrown in, any adjusted casualty estimate is still staggering. Indonesia fought Timorese independence with a terrifying ferocity--in large part because the attention of the world was focused elsewhere. In the few occasions when stories about the East Timor conflict appeared in American and European newspapers, they were usually short items, relegated to the back pages, with no photographs or other arresting details.
Which is why the Timorese want to keep the United Nations around. Sure, no one expects the "blue helmets" to intervene when they, arguably, should try to stop atrocities happening right in front of them. Even if the UN peacekeeping forces' rules of engagement have something left to be desired, the UN brings with it the attention of the world media. Even a couple of reporters can make a difference, since news items about troubled regions--East Timor, Darfur, Chechnya, and so forth--can gain momentum quickly.
The UN also has staying power which, honestly, the United States lacks. Even when the US plays a constructive role in conflicts marginal to American interests--for example, as it did briefly in Haiti--it's hard for US policy-makers to sustain their attention on any one location for too long, particularly when core US national security concerns are not in play. The UN can stay for a much longer time, as it has most recently in the Balkans and Africa.
While it's sometimes hard to extend three cheers to the blue helmets, even one or two is better than none.