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The UN and the US

The United Nations heads into its second half century with eroding support from its chief patron and host, the United States.

A mere five years ago, the situation was strikingly different. The US had worked through the UN to put together an alliance that rolled back Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Talk was of a rebirth of the world body, with new missions and more-effective peacekeeping.

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Somalia soon eclipsed that optimism, and Bosnia deepened the shadows. Anti-UN feelings percolated in Washington - though the facts didn't really build a case against that institution. The American soldiers killed in Somalia as they pursued warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed were under US, not UN, command.

In Bosnia, the UN mission faltered primarily because the major powers in Europe, as well as the US, could not agree on a policy of forceful response to the fighting and atrocity. The UN has little choice but to follow the lead of its most powerful members, particularly the five permanent members of the Security Council.

Bosnia showed that the cold war's end hardly meant unanimity on the Council. The current position of the US, opposing a second term for Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and taking a hard line on administrative reform of the organization, adds to current fractiousness at the UN.

President Clinton tried to play down American discontent with his address at the UN this week. But US negativity about the world body isn't easily hidden. It's right out there in the presidential campaign - at least on those rare occasions when foreign policy enters the debate. Republican Bob Dole scorns the idea of US troops coming under the command of Mr. Boutros-Ghali. Such circumstances haven't occurred, and aren't likely to, but the line draws applause.

Mr. Clinton knows the political value of a tough stand on the UN, too. His determination to boot out the secretary-general, made public in time to rob Mr. Dole of the issue, had an unmistakable aura of politics.

But the Boutros-Ghali issue goes deeper than campaign tactics. The White House claims the secretary-general has not been diligent enough in ridding the UN of waste and inefficiency. And it has a point. The notoriously slow-moving and padded UN bureaucracy needs an overhaul. Boutros-Ghali's defenders say he has begun that process and plans more. But there is little hope of bringing the US around to that point of view. A new secretary-general appears inevitable.

When fresh leadership comes to the UN, will the US do the honorable thing and begin paying its $1.8 billion in back dues? That will be the best test of America's commitment to an institution whose usefulness could steadily grow in the next half century.

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