For many, the United Nations is the fountain of virtue, a noble ally of the world’s poor, and the sole body able to confer or withhold legitimacy for acts, military or otherwise, of sovereign nations.

It’s been a tough few weeks for those who hold this idealized view of the East River Debating Society, what with a damaging, new report on massive corruption in the United Nation’s billion-dollar-plus oil-for-food program.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Anne Applebaum notes that the United Nations is a flawed institution composed of people who have been elected by nobody and who have virtually no oversight:   
‘[T]he United Nations is not a person or an ally, let alone a sovereign nation,’ Applebaum writes. ‘The UN isn’t even a collection of well-meaning people who just want peace. It is a group of different agencies with different agendas, some of which – the World Health Organization or the tsunami aid coordinators – are vital, and some of which – the Libyan-chaired Commission on Human Rights – are ludicrous. Some of its employees are hugely effective, some are apallingly bad. More to the point, none is subject to the kind of oversight that would be taken for granted in a democratic government or a similarly-sized corporation.’

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, whose son benefited financially from the corrupt program, hailed the report as exoneration for himself because it does not find him culpable for any illegal activity. Not so fast, says Applebaum:  

‘Despite the fact that it did not find the Secretary General personally guilty of corruption, the portrait of his office that emerges from the report is not exactly savoury. When they began their work, the investigators discovered that Mr Annan’s former chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, had just destroyed three years’ worth of documents – a procedure that began, perhaps not coincidentally, right after the investigation was launched. They also discovered that the head of the United Nations’ office of internal oversight, Dileep Nair, had paid the salary of a staff member using money that had been designated for the administration of the oil-for-food program – which was particularly disturbing, given that Nair was the person responsible for monitoring UN bureaucrats, and that the staff member was employed to design an anti-corruption program. These new revelations, when added to the dodgy procurement practices and corruption outlined in the previous oil-for-food investigation report – as well as recent revelations of misconduct by UN peacekeepers and sexual harassment scandals among UN bureaucrats – don’t exactly make the United Nations look like a model of corporate probity, let alone an organization that is capable of bringing peace to various war-torn bits of the world.’

Applebaum thinks that John Bolton, the Bush choice for U.N. ambassador who has the bureaucrats squealing, is the right man to bring some accountability to the U.N. Even so, the liberal fantasy of the United Nations as the final aribiter and actor on the international scene, remains just that’a fantasy:
‘Yet – as John Bolton has written – there will always be limits on what the UN can achieve,’ writes Applebaum, ‘no matter how well the institution is run. Because it is accountable to no one, such an international organisation is never going to be good at managing large, long-term projects involving a lot of money, such as the oil-for-food programme. Because it is not beholden to a democratic government, it will never be the right choice for a major military operation. However comforting, consensual and ‘international’ it may sound, a decision to ‘send in the United Nations’ is never going to be the complete solution to any problem.’

I can’t help adding that none of this will prevent liberals from loving the U.N. After all, it’s their platonic institution–unelected and eager to enforce its draconian rules in the name of helping humankind (I don’t think you can say mankind at the U.N.).