Turning to the U.N., Again

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By Richard Holbrooke
Wednesday, June 28, 2006

In a little-noticed announcement in President Bush's news conference on June 14, the day he returned from Iraq, he said that he would send two personal emissaries to New York to consult with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on the political and economic future of Iraq. The next day, still with remarkably little public attention, Philip Zelikow, the counselor of the State Department, and Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt met with Annan and his deputy, Mark Malloch Brown, at the secretary general's Sutton Place residence. There was no one else present.

The two presidential envoys asked Annan to use his unique "convening powers" to help organize international meetings that would lead (by this fall, the Americans hope) to the unveiling of a new "Iraq Compact" -- an agreement between the Iraqi government and major international donors that would commit Baghdad to a series of political and economic reforms in return for substantially more international aid. (Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called Annan the same day to make an identical request.)

This is a good idea -- and quite similar to suggestions from many administration critics. With the battle for Baghdad raging, it remains to be seen whether an Iraq Compact will work -- or even get off the ground -- but it is certainly an important step in the right direction for Iraq and for American policy.

For Annan and the United Nations, Bush's request poses an ironic and difficult challenge. On the one hand, the administration is asking for help on the worst problem it faces, acknowledging, however belatedly and reluctantly, that once again, the United Nations is not only relevant but at times indispensable to the United States. On the other hand, the resentment among the majority of U.N. member states over the way the institution has been treated recently, especially by Washington's current U.N. ambassador, makes any effort to get the United Nations to help the United States far more difficult.

How to treat the United Nations has been a particular dilemma for President Bush, since opponents of the organization form an important part of the administration's core constituency. Internal disagreements over the past five years about whether to support it or abandon it, to use it or bypass it, have both weakened the organization and led to reduced U.S. influence even as more and more intractable issues are thrown into its hands.

The United Nations is facing major budgetary problems caused primarily by American insistence on a six-month budget cycle instead of the normal two-year cycle. It must deal with growing shortfalls in the U.S. contribution to peacekeeping funding, despite Washington's calls for more peacekeepers in Darfur and elsewhere. And it is confronted by a deadlock over rebuilding the headquarters complex in New York -- a deadlock whose main cause is the administration's failure to push Congress for proper funding. (This is particularly difficult to understand, since the U.N. signature building, its 38-story East River office tower -- built in 1950 and never subject to modern safety codes -- is widely acknowledged to be the major building in New York most vulnerable to a terrorist attack. For example, when the president visits it, the Secret Service closes down FDR Drive beneath it -- but what about the rest of the time?)

Still, even though Annan and the world body have been diminished by Washington, he and his colleagues simply cannot refuse to help on the Iraq matter; it is their responsibility as international civil servants to go where the problems are worst and then to do their best. And, on the basis of private talks with Annan, Malloch Brown and administration officials, I have no doubt that they intend to do just that. In fact, Malloch Brown has already agreed to travel to Baghdad very soon for preliminary meetings that the United Nations and the United States hope will culminate later this year in a high-level conference in the region. As Annan moves into his last six months as secretary general, this would be the right way to end a turbulent decade in that office -- with a genuine contribution to the cause of peace in Iraq.

It is, however, impossible not to note the irony and the implications of what has happened in the past two weeks between Washington and the United Nations. Once again, an administration that has underfunded, undersupported and undermined the United Nations has turned to it, almost in desperation, for help.

The lesson should be clear: Despite the enormously self-destructive actions of many other member states, especially the group of developing nations called the G-77, the United Nations still serves U.S. foreign policy interests in many important ways. Not only Iraq but also Iran, Darfur, Afghanistan and the difficult negotiations just started over Kosovo's final status -- all issues of vital importance to the United States -- have now ended up in the United Nations. To weaken this institution further, as has happened in recent years, serves no clear American national security interest. To strengthen it would make it more valuable to the United States and to every nation that seeks conflict resolution, stability and economic progress. With the maneuvering over the selection of Annan's successor underway, it is time for Washington -- and this must include Congress -- to put behind it a sorry period of confusion and offer the United Nations more support, both financial and political, in return for the things it needs in Iraq and elsewhere.

Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, writes a monthly column for The Post.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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