Flawed Diplomacy: The United Nations & the War on Terrorism, Victor D. Comras, Potomac Books, Inc., 2010, 284 pages, $29.95
Victor Comras, who led the international sanctions program on Serbia and on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and was the U.S. State Department’s point man on sanctions related to Iran, Cuba, and North Korea, has written a long-overdue book about the problematic role the United Nations has played — or not played — in the war on terror.
Flawed Diplomacy, in focusing on the UN’s inability to implement anti-terrorist measures, gives a clear description of the history of the international body in the face of terrorism since the early 1970s and explains the problems it still presents.
Comras identifies the start of current forms of terrorism as the hijacking of an El Al Israel plane in June 1968, when a flight from London to Tel Aviv was diverted to Algiers by three members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Israel appealed to the UN, which condemned the hijacking but took no further action. This inaction, says Comras, led to further hijackings of Israeli planes, and, in response to continuing international indifference and to Israel’s being forced to take retaliatory actions on its own — actions highly criticized by the UN.
In the aftermath of the Munich massacre of the summer of 1972 — in which 11 Israeli Olympic athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists — then UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim called for a special session to adopt measures designed to prevent terrorism and other forms of violence. However, under pressure from Arab countries and those of the Non-Aligned Movement, Waldheim was forced to withdraw its initiative; again, the UN took no action.
These countries were instrumental in preventing consensus on the issue by introducing a discussion on the need to address “the root causes of terrorism.” The demands for a clear definition of terrorism, as distinguished from the acts of national liberation movements, again prevented decisive action on the part of the UN. The result: Palestinian terrorist groups were given a pass. In other words, the countries mentioned above succeeded in making the UN a body that is highly ineffective in the war against terrorism.
It was only after 9/11 that the UN began to take real action. Indeed, a number of resolutions were adopted that outlaw terrorism and punish those responsible. The focus, however, was on Al Qaida, the Taliban, and the like; terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hizbullah, and others were still untouched by these resolutions.
Comras also raises the fact that UN resolutions on terrorism have not been implemented by individual states as they should have been. Monitoring of sanctions against pro-terrorist entities and individuals has been systematically undermined. This situation has also affected the work of the different secretaries-general, who in turn have become largely ineffective and unable to follow their own promises of greater determination in fighting terrorism.
Throughout Flawed Diplomacy, the author often presents the UN’s failures as the result of tensions between the West and the Third World, but in fact the propaganda war against Israel has affected European countries and their political culture as well. Indeed, the French Foreign Ministry tends to react to Israel’s anti-terrorist campaigns as “disproportionate” and, along with other Western European officialdom, often offer social reasons or the status of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to “explain” radical Islamic militancy. UN secretaries-general on their part have done little or nothing to mitigate the anti-Israel crusade. Even those like Kofi Annan, who Comras claims at least did more than his predecessors on the issue of terrorism, showed tolerance toward the infamous UN anti-Israel Durban conference in 2001 at a time when Israel was facing a major wave of terrorist attacks.
Comras shows why it is so difficult to work with the international community, a goal pursued by some important groups in the United States, including President Barack Obama.
Flawed Diplomacy is a thoughtful and well-written book and a huge step forward toward promoting an understanding of the UN and its poor role in the battle against terrorism. Comras has done a great job reminding us that this important topic requires further attention as it affects U.S. foreign policy and world stability.