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Risky Wishes at the U.N.

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By Jim Hoagland
Thursday, September 28, 2006

The 15 nations that will gather in New York today to conduct a straw vote on who is to be the next U.N. secretary general should reflect on a durable lesson of political life: Be careful what you wish for. You may get it.

That warning of the dangers of answered prayers applies particularly to President Bush and his support for Ban Ki Moon, South Korea's reliably stolid foreign minister, in the highly competitive race to succeed Kofi Annan at year's end. Bush -- pilloried by Third World radicals at last week's General Assembly opening -- may be picking up a lightning rod instead of a shield.

Bush's decision rewards a long-established U.S. ally, South Korea, rather than a new U.S. strategic partner, India, which supports favorite son Shashi Tharoor. Tharoor, a U.N. civil servant, novelist and historian, is as presentationally polished as Ban is laconic.

In two previous polls of Security Council members, Washington has voted to encourage both the leading candidates to stay in the race. A shift to voting only for Ban -- a move that Bush indicated he would make to South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun at a White House meeting this month -- would probably doom the hopes of Tharoor and the other candidates.

It is unusual for the competition to end so early for a job that provides the world's biggest diplomatic megaphone and little else in terms of real power. But everything else about this year's contest has been unusual and, alas, probably seminal.

The campaigning for votes from the Security Council members has been unusually open, political and intense, with candidates crisscrossing the globe for the past two months to drum up support. South Korea's generosity in foreign aid and investment decisions may work in Ban's favor with some nations, it is said in diplomatic understatement in the corridors of the United Nations.

Bush has other motivations. Supporting Ban smooths Bush's once-troubled relations with Roh. Helping secure the top diplomatic job at the world body for an American ally would be an important first and an asset for Bush's growing concern with his legacy. There may be hope as well in Washington that Ban would be more tractable -- or at least quieter and more remote -- than was Annan, who made jarringly public his disagreements with Bush over international law and the war in Iraq.

Annan in fact worked hard to protect U.S.-U.N. relations and came under fire from Third World radicals for being "too responsive" to Washington as they sought to play up a widening North-South divide in the world body.

The headlines on the diatribes that Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered last week in any forum available in New York, including the General Assembly hall, concentrated on his attacks on Bush. But Ahmadinejad was even more confrontational about the United Nations, whose legitimacy the Iranian directly challenged. Having such a highly visible American ally in charge of the U.N. Secretariat might complicate the vital negotiating role that the world body will play in resolving the Iranian crisis or in the confrontation with North Korea over its nuclear arms.

Those are not sufficient reasons for Washington to drop its support of Ban, who is a well-respected diplomat. But they are reasons for the Bush team to be careful in building expectations about what Ban's election would mean for U.S. strategic interests. At a time when the United Nations itself needs defending and explaining to many skeptical audiences throughout the world, traditional diplomacy may not be the best qualification for a new secretary general.

Security Council ambassadors will not actually vote for or against anyone today. They will mark ballot sheets to encourage, discourage or express no opinion on declared candidates. It is still possible that last-minute horse-trading could produce a muddled outcome that would encourage new candidates to get into the race.

Top jobs are also open at the World Health Organization, where China is making a strong push, and the World Food Program, where Europe hopes one of its citizens will replace previous American directors. The temptation will be strong to barter votes in a package deal.

Reserving or rewarding such high-responsibility jobs on a regional or national basis -- or because of a history of alliances -- is an obsolete luxury in the age of globalization. Merit and suitability should be the only criteria in a game that must be played by transparent rules.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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