At the U.N., a Growing Republican Presence

Ann M. Veneman, as president of UNICEF, has sidestepped some politically sensitive issues that rankle administration conservatives.
Ann M. Veneman, as president of UNICEF, has sidestepped some politically sensitive issues that rankle administration conservatives. (Pier Paolo Cito - AP)
By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 21, 2005

UNITED NATIONS, July 20 -- Christopher B. Burnham, the highest-ranking U.S. citizen working in the U.N. Secretariat, is a rare breed here: a Republican Party loyalist and an enthusiastic supporter of President Bush.

Burnham, the United Nations' undersecretary for the department of management, is one of a handful of Bush administration supporters hired by the United Nations in recent months. They have been promoting Bush's political agenda in an organization that has clashed bitterly with Republican policymakers over such issues as the impact of global warming and the justification for the war in Iraq.

Burnham says he sees his purpose as furthering the mission he began as the chief financial officer in the Bush State Department: making the bureaucracy he oversees more accountable. Burnham suggested that his ultimate loyalty may lie with the president, not his new boss, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. He says he also relishes the thought of working with John R. Bolton, a close friend and Bush's choice as U.N. ambassador, to force change.

"I'm not here to be a careerist," said Burnham, a former GOP fundraiser and investment banker who keeps photographs of Bush, Laura Bush and George H.W. Bush in his U.N. office. "I came here at the request of the White House. It's my duty to make the U.N. more effective. My primary loyalty is to the United States of America."

The Bush administration hopes the recent appointments of Republicans such as Burnham; Ann M. Veneman, the new executive director of UNICEF; and others to senior U.N. positions will make the United Nations a more hospitable place for conservative views. Republicans such as James T. Morris, a Bush supporter who heads the U.N. World Food Program, have already used their positions to underscore the humanitarian contributions of prominent Republicans.

Addressing the U.N. Security Council last month on world hunger, Morris paid homage to President Ronald Reagan, a tough critic of the United Nations. Morris said Reagan's decision to provide aid in the 1980s to famine-stricken Ethiopia under communist rule represented the "most eloquent affirmation" of the principle that food should never be used as a weapon of war.

Veneman, who served as agriculture secretary during Bush's first term, insists that she is not seeking to implement White House policies at the agency. But she is promoting priorities that parallel those backed by the Bush administration, which nominated her for the job.

In her initial speeches, she has sidestepped politically sensitive issues championed by her Democratic predecessor, Carol Bellamy -- such as children's rights and reproductive health care -- that have rankled the administration's social conservatives.

Instead, Veneman has highlighted primary health care for children under the age of 5, an area of UNICEF's work that is known as "child survival." She has also advocated what she calls "child protection" themes that are popular in the White House and Congress, including combating the trafficking of children in the sex trade.

"People talk about the convention on the rights of the child, nobody knows what you're talking about," Veneman said. But she said that issues such as child trafficking and the forced recruitment of child soldiers resonate with audiences.

"The issue of children, I just don't think is a Republican or Democratic agenda," she said. "Virtually all of the issues are issues that people universally care about. I don't see myself as furthering anybody's agenda other than that of the world's children."

Life for those few Republicans at the United Nations has been, at times, awkward. Catherine Bertini, who preceded Burnham as the United Nations' top management official, said colleagues were appalled by her backing of Bush after his decision to invade Iraq. Bertini, who resigned in April, recalled being confronted by a senior U.N. colleague who asked, "How can you possibly support that man?"

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