WASHINGTON — In foreign policy, sometimes the noblest of intentions leads to lousy ideas.
That's certainly the case with the recent curious proposal for a special United Nations "jam squad"--a special U.N. team that could be hurriedly dispatched to crisis points around the world carrying equipment to jam, or block, harmful radio and TV broadcasts.
Writing in the current issue of "Foreign Affairs" magazine, Jamie M. Metzl, a former United Nations human rights officer, proposes the creation of what would officially be called an "independent information intervention unit" at the U.N.
Its goal, he writes, would be "countering dangerous messages that incite people to violence." A U.N. unit could monitor local news media to see where crises might erupt, air its own messages of peace and, where necessary, prevent other radio or TV broadcasts from being heard.
The idea for the U.N. jam squad originated in the genocidal horrors of Rwanda. In 1994, the country's main radio station, the Radio-Television Libre des Milles Collines, then controlled by Hutu extremists, began broadcasting hate messages targeting members of the rival tribe, the Tutsis, and moderate Hutus.
The Rwanda station even broadcast lists of enemies to be hunted down. "Take your spears, clubs, guns, swords, stones, everything, sharpen them, jack them, those enemies, those cockroaches," the station urged listeners. The result was one of the world's worst blood baths, in which more than 500,000 unarmed Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered.
This was, certainly, as compelling a case for jamming as you can get. And Metzl has one cogent argument on behalf of his proposal: When there's an ethnic conflict in a place like Rwanda, sending in a United Nations jamming team would be considerably easier and less costly than sending in troops.
"I think it's a worthy idea," says Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Fullerton), chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on Africa. "I'm sure we would try to go out and jam [in Rwanda] if those circumstances came up again."
Indeed, the United States and its allies are conducting a somewhat similar operation in Bosnia. Two months ago, NATO troops seized and effectively shut down a station run by hard-line Bosnian Serb forces after the station broadcast inflammatory attacks on NATO forces trying to keep the peace there.
But it's a long step to go from these situations to the creation of a permanent, formal unit run by the United Nations and scouring the world in search of radio broadcasts to jam.
Who would determine exactly what kinds of radio programs should be blocked and which programs could be aired? What would ensure that the jamming decisions were not motivated by politics? Wouldn't the creation of such a United Nations operation strengthen the hand of governments that want to jam radio transmissions for much less noble reasons?
"This opens up a Pandora's box, really," says Richard Richter, the director of Radio Free Asia, the federally funded station that broadcasts into Asian countries with repressive governments. "You'd have China claiming that we [American broadcasts] should be jammed by the United Nations."
Ultimately, a U.N. jamming squad would give official sanction to restrictions on the free flow of information. Metzl's article has a response to this problem, but it's a weak one.
"During the Cold War, when the United States faced a Soviet adversary intent on jamming the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe . . . , it made sense for the United States to promote an absolute standard for the free flow of information," he wrote. "Now, a more nuanced view should be possible."
But that's precisely backward: The free flow of information wasn't merely a temporary means to winning the Cold War, but one of the goals of the endeavor.
Although the problem of hate-filled radio broadcasts is a serious one, there are ways of dealing with it that don't involve creating some huge, supranational censorship unit.
One alternative is simply to provide other, competing radio broadcasts. In Rwanda, for example, the United Nations set up its own radio stations, both in the capital of Kigali and in radio camps.
Royce's subcommittee has been exploring the possibility of creating a Radio Free Africa, similar to Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and Radio Marti, which broadcasts to Cuba.
There are serious questions about whether such a new organization is necessary, when VOA, the official U.S. government station, already broadcasts intensively into Africa. But the underlying idea makes sense: to transmit better, more accurate information to Africa, rather than focusing on jamming or censorship.
There are other ways of combating hate radio too. Those who directly incite violence over the airwaves can be brought to justice. At the moment, a war-crimes tribunal, set up under U.N. auspices, is prosecuting those responsible for the massacres in Rwanda. Among the suspects in custody are some of those responsible for the Milles Collines radio broadcasts.
But a worldwide, U.N.-run jamming team? As a Hollywood script, maybe the idea has possibilities. As foreign policy, it's a loser.
\o7 Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.\f7