Lately we can’t open a newspaper without reading about how U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Zalmay Khalilzad differs from his predecessor, John Bolton. According to the Washington Post, “U.S. diplomacy at the United Nations has a decidedly different cast” since Khalilzad took over. And this week the New York Sun reported that Khalilzad “is attempting to establish a détente in Washington’s age-old battle to clean up Turtle Bay.”
This raises several concerns, foremost among them being: Has Khalilzad abandoned serious efforts to bring greater transparency and accountability to the U.N.? And, if so, does that represent a change in the Bush administration’s policy?
The early signs do not look encouraging. Last January, U.S. representative for U.N. management and reform Mark Wallace, whom Bolton recruited to investigate corruption, uncovered a significant lack of accountability in the U.N. Development Program’s activities in North Korea. The Wall Street Journal’s Melanie Kirkpatrick reported that numerous loopholes in the program left millions of U.N. development dollars vulnerable to Kim Jong Il’s pilferage.
After that report, secretary general Ban Ki Moon ordered a preliminary audit of the program, which confirmed that a lack of UNDP oversight had allowed Kim’s regime to pick local staffers in violation of U.N. rules. Whistleblowers told Wallace, and the audit confirmed, that projects were routinely paid for using euros rather than local currency, another violation. The UNDP also hid knowledge of North Korean counterfeiting from U.S. investigators, and transferred technology to North Korea that some experts fear could be converted for use in weapons programs.
The North Korea case raises bigger questions about the lack of oversight in UNDP programs. The UNDP does not have to turn over internal audits or line-item budgets to U.N. members that sit on its executive board, such as the United States. The UNDP has no limit on the amount it spends on administrative overhead, and it often uses money designated for development to pay legions of local “consultants” — a recipe for corruption. The biggest concern for the United States is that the UNDP is spending millions of dollars in a number of countries ruled by hostile dictatorships, with no reliable assurances that the money isn’t being siphoned off by those regimes.
When Khalilzad assumed the ambassadorship in April, Wallace was in the process of pushing for reforms to correct these and other problems. Since then, Khalilzad has tried to rein Wallace in, and is attempting to defuse tensions between the U.S. and the U.N. by helping the UNDP make the scandal go away. He has reportedly ordered Wallace and others to stop talking to the press, even though anonymous UNDP staffers continue to leak information designed to make themselves look good. The Sun’s Benny Avni correctly called this approach “a unilateral disarmament.”
As a result, reformers inside the U.S. mission to the U.N. have taken a number of hits in the press recently, all designed to make them look like rogues left over from the Bolton era, operating outside administration policy. In fact, they are pursuing the kind of reform effort that the Bush administration has spent years trying to promote. The question is whether Khalilzad’s change in approach indicates that that policy has now changed.
Assistant secretary of state Kristen Silverberg, who oversees the U.S. mission to the U.N., says, “The administration’s priorities on U.N. reform” — a U.N. that is “transparent, ethical, and an effective use of taxpayer dollars” — “have always been clear.” She says the administration takes the North Korea case very seriously: “We’ve asked UNDP for an independent audit and investigation to address allegations of mismanagement of funds.” How to explain Khalilzad’s decision to silence Wallace and take the matter private? Silverberg says, “We’ve pursued [a satisfactory resolution] both publicly and also with a lot of frank conversations with U.N. officials in terms of their behavior.” Khalilzad and Wallace “work very closely together,” she adds.
If the aggressive pursuit of more transparency and accountability at the U.N. remains the administration’s policy, then it is Khalilzad, not Wallace, who appears to be operating outside of it. The most popular explanation for this is that Khalilzad is trying to win institutional support for a broader U.N. role in Iraq — also an administration priority. According to less charitable accounts, Khalilzad has, to use the old expression, “grown in office.”
Now that the U.N. Security Council has voted to expand the U.N.’s involvement in Iraq, we will get a chance to see whether Khalilzad turns his attention back to the administration’s anti-corruption agenda. We cannot improve the U.N. unless we occasionally highlight facts that are inconvenient to its officials and member states. If keeping development funds out of the hands of dictators remains a top priority for Khalilzad, he needs to say so. Otherwise, international bureaucrats will continue to fill the vacuum in the press with defenses of the status quo, and the pressure for badly needed reforms will eventually dissipate. In this environment, “unilateral disarmament” is not an acceptable policy.