Politics & Policy

They’Ve Been Partying Long Enough

A scandal-plagued United Nations turns 60.

On Wednesday, President Bush is due to address the United Nations, where more than 170 heads of state are meeting this week to celebrate the organization’s 60th birthday and attend upon its umpteenth “reform.” Among top officials at Turtle Bay, the worry is that Bush might introduce enough reality–or integrity–to spoil their fun. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has just warned, in an interview with the Independent, a British newspaper, that if the reform summit fails, he will blame the U.S. because “They are the host. You cannot be a host and destroy the party.”

There are by now too many signs that under Annan’s stewardship the U.N. has already partied quite enough. President Bush owes it to his own constituents–who are not foreign heads of state, but American voters and taxpayers–to pull the punchbowl. Scandals at the U.N. have proliferated to where they need cross-indexing simply to keep track of, from incompetence to theft to bribery to money-laundering to rape–in (mix and match) New York, Geneva, Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, and West Africa, to name just the short list of recent examples. In an 847-page report last week, Paul Volcker’s U.N.-authorized probe into Oil-for-Food disclosed findings of corruption, waste, and top-level incompetence, all bathed in a “pervasive culture of responsibility avoidance and resistance to accountability.” Annan, as he has done with U.N.-observed genocide in Rwanda and Srebenica, promptly took “responsibility”–though what that means in practice, as he parties right on, is anyone’s guess.

Nor is Volcker’s investigation over. Next month he is expected to report on the widespread corruption among the thousands of companies that did business with Saddam Hussein’s regime, via the U.N., under the 1996-2003 Oil-for-Food program. There could be more than a little embarrassment there for some of the heads of state now gathered for the festivities in New York. Saddam threw well-padded business to his pals, in places such as Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, and especially among veto-wielding Security Council members France, Russia, and China–all of whom in 2002 and early 2003 opposed the U.S. and U.K. arguments for enforcing the U.N.’s own resolutions against Saddam. Annan had access at the time to the U.N.’s trove of confidential information confirming many specifics of this targeted and tainted trade carried out under the U.N.’s corrupted program. Had he spoken up then, to protect the integrity of the U.N.’s own operations and debates, he might enjoy some credibility today. He said nothing.

It seems at this stage that no one expects managerial competence or integrity from Annan. It is enough that he presides over a global icon, runs programs disbursing billions worth of other people’s money, and performs well at parties. It is perhaps pleasing to Russia, France, and China that last October he denounced as “inconceivable” the idea that their positions in the debate over Saddam’s Iraq could have been influenced by Saddam’s payoffs (and ensuing opportunities for blackmail).

These are not qualifications for overseeing a sweeping reform of the U.N. Nor do Annan’s proposals for reform in any way overcome his personal failings. His chief contribution to the future of his imploding institution has been a list of treadworn proposals, a few with merit, but most of them devoted to taking what’s wrong with the U.N., making it even bigger, and demanding more money to pay for it.

Having evidently learned nothing from Oil-for-Food, Annan’s pet plan these days is that rich nations contribute an automatic 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product for official development aid to poor countries–much of that presumably to be channeled through the U.N. However lofty the intent, the design is perverse, not least in diverting yet more money from the private sector–which is the real source of development–toward some of the world’s worst crooks. The U.N. is the leading global clubhouse legitimizing the dictators whose policies produce the world’s worst poverty. (Watch for their motorcades on Fifth Avenue this week). And until the U.N. centers its reforms not around shaking down rich donors, but around true transparency and responsible, accountable leadership, sending another flood of money its way is not a recipe for development. It is an invitation for yet more scandal and corruption.

Last month, newly appointed U.S. Ambassador John Bolton introduced a long-overdue note of sobriety to this agenda–line-editing the U.N.’s draft reform program, and knocking out along with some of the atrocious syntax such stuff as Annan’s proposed 0.7-percent levy. That’s a terrific start. But from the State Department back in Washington come continuing hints that the U.S. diplomatic game may be Bolton’s bad cop to Condoleezza Rice’s good cop. Last Friday, asked about confidence in Annan after the Volcker report on Oil-for-Food, Rice told the press, “We will continue to work with the secretary-general and we are confident that he will support the kinds of reforms that are needed to try and make sure that this sort of thing does not happen again.” Confident? Really? Has anyone at Foggy Bottom actually read the full report?

Rice’s etiquette smacks of the stuff that flowed from Colin Powell’s State Department during most of the Iraq debate, when during all those grinding months, the administration politely declined to share with the world public the substantial insights it already had into the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food gala of graft, waste, administrative incompetence and Security Council corruption. Honesty at the time could have saved a lot of trouble, illuminated an important aspect of the debate (namely that Saddam was trying to buy up the Security Council) and possibly even helped clean up the U.N.

When we have a clean, efficient U.N.–if we ever do–there may come a time for pleasant diplomatic fictions on the General Assembly floor. But right now, to the extent we depend on the U.N. for anything of importance in world affairs, it is not only U.S. tax dollars at stake, but U.S. security. If there is anything the U.S. has done to earn the deep disrespect of the U.N. and its more hostile members over the years, it is that America has too long played the chump. American taxpayers foot the lion’s share of the bills. The U.S. provides housing for the U.N. atop one of the fanciest patches of real estate in the country, and is now offering to finance the renovation of U.N. headquarters on terms sweeter than most hard-working Americans could dream of. We put up with anti-American resolutions and declarations by a U.N. which, according to a new website–www.EyeontheUN.org–treats the U.S. as a human-rights violator on a scale surpassed only by Sudan, the Congo, and the U.N.’s all-time favorite target, Israel.

Bush’s job when he gets up before the General Assembly tomorrow is not to host a party, or coddle Kofi Annan, or paper over another in a long series of made-to-fail U.N. reforms. Bush’s job is to talk straight.

Claudia Rosett is a journalist in residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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