PHILADELPHIA -- Those who find the presidential debate over military readiness unedifying should pay attention to the massive confab of world leaders at the three-day U.N. Millennium Summit opening Wednesday.
On the agenda is the hot-potato issue of how to restructure U.N. peacekeeping operations, so as to avoid any more humiliations like those the blue helmets suffered in Rwanda, Bosnia and Sierra Leone.
The real issue is who, if anyone, should try to ameliorate the world's growing number of little, nasty, civil wars.
This question is a subtext of the defense debate between Republicans and Democrats. But neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore has yet put forward a satisfactory answer. Both confront a world that lacks the neat Cold War framework that made every small war into a strategic extension of the U.S.-Soviet conflict.
In the search for a new guiding principle, there's been a lot of blather about a new ethos of humanitarian intervention. But in reality, Western leaders still can't figure out how (or whether) to deal with brutal little wars.
Mr. Gore is saddled with the schizophrenic Clinton legacy on small wars: tough moral talk accompanied by a reluctance to use force, followed by ill-planned, reluctant and backhanded military operations in places such as Somalia and Kosovo. Mr. Gore is more cautious. His likely choice for secretary of state, Richard Holbrooke, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, calls for strengthening U.N. peacekeeping.
Mr. Bush claims the U.S. military has become overextended on peacekeeping missions, and he says he would order "an immediate review" of U.S. troop commitments in "dozens of countries." His key foreign affairs adviser, Condoleezza Rice, drew her biggest applause at the Philadelphia convention when she said, "America's armed forces are not a global police force; they are not the world's 911."
But America's role as sole global superpower guarantees that other countries will look to us for some kind of leadership when crisis threatens. Even if the United States wants to stay uninvolved, the CNN factor -- TV images of bloody refugees or starving children -- may rouse public demands that Washington do something.
Sometimes these little wars -- in East Timor or Kosovo -- are in the backyard of close allies, like Australia or the European Union, who need some help in coping. Sometimes -- as in Africa -- there may be no direct national interest, but turning our back would leave America open to charges of racist neglect.
Which brings us to the Millennium Summit. It will consider the recommendation of a panel of international experts that member nations revise the U.N. peacekeeping system. The goal: to give the U.N. secretary-general the means to deploy competent forces rapidly into messy conflicts where Americans don't want to send their troops.
The panel, chaired by former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi, calls for member states to create standby brigade-sized forces within their own military. The brigades could train together and be made available to the United Nations on short notice -- if Security Council members ordered a peacekeeping mission.
U.N. officials would check each brigade for combat readiness. The report also calls for the United Nations to establish a more competent military headquarters, including military experts on call from member nations.
There would be no standing U.N. army. But the reforms would redress the absurd situation whereby the Security Council mandates a U.N. peacekeeping force, and then the world body goes begging members with woeful armies for troops. Often the peacekeeping force winds up with an ill-trained, underfunded, ragtag Babel of soldiers directed from U.N. headquarters by an undermanned, demoralized staff.
The report also insists that U.N. forces must be ready to go beyond mere peacekeeping if they are challenged. Unlike Bosnia, where blue helmets stood by while Serbs massacred Muslims, the peacekeepers must be ready and willing to use force if they are confronted by force.
All this makes consummate sense -- but the Brahimi report has almost zip chance of being implemented.
The reasons are several. For one thing, Security Council members like Russia and China are squeamish about U.N. operations that mess about in civil conflicts. They don't want any interference in Tibet or Chechnya.
Equally daunting, member states with good armies are still reluctant to put their troops at the U.N.'s disposal. This applies even to member states that roundly endorse the idea of U.N. peacekeeping missions. (U.S. officials insist our troops won't serve under a U.N. commander -- and, given the U.N.'s track record, I understand their reluctance.)
The Millennium Summit is most likely to pay lip service to the Brahimi report, with little provision for follow-up. But the U.N. debate is still useful in the context of our presidential race.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.