Monday, January 03, 2005

Livery but sick and green

Any argument against asserted authority, however minor, necessarily takes on the character of rebellion.  While dialogue between the elected and their electors is a not only tolerated but encouraged; conversations on equal terms between subjects and Kings are by definition treason and a deadly threat. In the matter of providing relief for tsunami victims, the UN cannot afford to assume any other attitude than a reluctant willingness to stoop to command the national contingents. For the United Nations to abandon its claim to primacy in the tsunami relief effort is the equivalent of renouncing its scepter as the 'sole source of legitimacy' and the only fount of 'moral authority'. For no danger is so great to international organizations and Kings as the peril of being proved unnecessary.

Though almost almost none of the food, supplies and logistical systems to provide relief have so far have come from the World Body, it appears existentially important to it that what has arrived wear the livery of the United Nations. The necessity of controlling livery was also understood by Kings.

First in England, and later on the continent, there developed the practice of raising armies with a system that came to be known as "livery and maintenance." ... Maintenance was the medieval term for the money payment made to the soldier. Livery referred to a coat of distinctive color and design that indicated who the soldier was fighting for. After the Wars of the Roses, King Henry VII (1485-1509) could not afford to take the chance of an uprising, so he restrained his nobles' old abilities to raise private armies. In 1487 he had a law enacted against livery and maintenance and in 1504 codified existing statutes against "retaining", to prevent the nobles keeping independent forces.

In this context, a report from Diplomadic blog correspondent in Aceh alleging a UN request that US and Australian troops wear UN livery is hardly surprising.

A colleague came back from a meeting held by the local UN representative yesterday and reported that the UN rep had said that while it was a good thing that the Australians and Americans were running the air ops into tsunami-wrecked Aceh, for cultural and political reasons, those Australians and Americans really "should go blue." In other words, they should switch into UN uniforms and give up their national ones.

Besides an instant readiness to throw a bal masque, the one activity at which the United Nations excels is constructing the Potemkin Village, defined as "something that appears elaborate and impressive but in actual fact lacks substance". The urgency to construct one rose as Kofi Annan's airplane neared Indonesia.

In this part of the tsunami-wrecked Far Abroad, the UN is still nowhere to be seen where it counts, i.e., feeding and helping victims. The relief effort continues to be a US-Australia effort, with Singapore now in and coordinating closely with the US and Australia. Other countries are also signing up to be part of the US-Australia effort. Nobody wants to be "coordinated" by the UN. The local UN reps are getting desperate. They're calling for yet another meeting this afternoon; they've flown in more UN big shots to lecture us all on "coordination" and the need to work together, i.e., let the UN take credit. With Kofi about to arrive for a big conference, the UNocrats are scrambling to show something, anything as a UN accomplishment.

It would be ludicrous if it weren't so tragic. Yet is far from certain that the United States will not make a limited bow of obeisance to Annan, if only to get him out of the way. His one undoubted power is the ability to make himself a pest. Annan has already indicated that he is willing to turn a kinder, gentler face towards the US in exchange for something in return, a sentiment Al Capone would understand. The International Herald Tribune reports that Kofi Annan met in closed door session with supporters in the Manhattan apartment of Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton Ambassador to the United Nations. It was a strategy session to discuss ways to save Kofi Annan's tenure and the stature of the United Nations after it had repeatedly been wracked by scandals.

The larger argument, according to participants, addressed two broad needs. First, Annan had to move aggressively to repair relations with Washington where, they said, the administration and many in Congress thought he and the United Nations had worked actively against President George W. Bush's reelection. And second, he had to restore his relationship with his own bureaucracy, where workers felt his office protected high-level officials accused of misconduct.

In the days following the session, Annan sought and obtained a meeting with Condoleezza Rice, the incoming secretary of state, that United Nations officials viewed positively, and he traveled on to Brussels to see European Union leaders. The secret gathering came at the end of a year that Annan has described as the organization's "annus horribilis," a year in which the United Nations faced charges of corruption in the way it ran the oil-for-food program in Iraq, evidence that blue-helmeted peacekeepers in Congo ran prostitution rings and raped women and teenage girls and formal motions of no confidence in the organization's senior management from staff unions.

Whether these steps will save Kofi Annan and the United Nations remains to be seen. Whether it will save any victims of the recent tsunami is an irrelevancy.


In the comments section, we discuss the implications of armed groups attempting to control the relief process and the consequences of their coming into contact with US or Australian personnel. I wrote:

The UN uniform issue can become deadly serious if some of the Achenese armed groups fire on convoys at which American or Australian military/official personnel are present. The UN would then be in a position to say 'if they had worn UN uniforms the incident would not have happened'. Worse if the Aussies or Americans fire back. Then we will have Kofi Annan in full accusatory mode.

More in comments.