March 22, 2005 | Wall Street Journal (Opinion Journal and European Edition)

In Deep Trouble

There he goes again.

“This hall has heard enough high-sounding declarations to last us for some decades to come,” Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the U.N. General Assembly Monday. “What is needed now is not more declarations and promises.”

For announcing a U.N. reform program, it was a good start. Had Mr. Annan then apologized for the gross failure of his previous reforms, launched in 1997, and left the stage, there might be a lot more reason to hope the U.N. will shape up.

Instead, Mr. Annan went right on to deliver his latest plan for U.N. reform, by way of a 63-page report stuffed with high-sounding declarations wrapped around dozens of proposals to take most of what the U.N. does wrong, and do lots more of it, with lots more taxpayer money. Mr. Annan took the title for his report from a phrase in the U.N. charter, “In Larger Freedom.” Truth in labeling would more accurately read: “In Deep Trouble.”

To be fair to Mr. Annan, there are the germs of a few good ideas in this report. These include recognizing terrorism as such in all cases, rather than excusing select terrorists (i.e., as a U.N. rule of thumb, those attacking Israel) as “freedom fighters.” It's also worth reshaping the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which two years ago embarrassed even the U.N. by choosing as its chairman the ambassador of Libyan tyrant Moammar Gadhafi. And there's no question the Security Council needs reform, though given that the council's basic failing has been lack of integrity, it's not clear why Mr. Annan thinks the answer is to make it bigger.

From there, Mr. Annan forges on to propose nothing less than reforming the entire known universe, via the U.N., while he bangs the drum for a budget to match. He wants to expand his own staff, change the world's climate, end organized crime, eliminate all private weapons, and double U.N.-directed development aid to the tune of at least $100 billion a year, “front-loaded,” for his detailed plan to end world poverty. This comes from a U.N. that only three months ago was finally strong-armed by Congress into coughing up the secret internal Oil for Food audits confirming that under Mr. Annan's stewardship the U.N. was not even adequately auditing its own staff operations.

After a year in which scandals have been erupting from every vent in the U.N.'s traditionally cloistered corridors, assorted members of Congress have been wondering whether Mr. Annan deserves even the budget he's got already. Some, such as Sen. Norm Coleman, have called for Mr. Annan to resign. Now, in much the same way that despots faced with popular unrest like to announce giant patriotic dam-building projects involving the pouring of huge amounts of cement, Mr. Annan is presenting his new improved save-the-world reform plan, conveniently timed to serve as a distraction from the oil-for-fraud, sex-for-food, theft, waste, abuse and incompetence stories that for the past two years have bubbling up around the same U.N. he already reformed for us back in 1997.

Mr. Annan's new plan comes just a week before the U.N.-authorized inquiry into the Oil for Food scandal, led by former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, is due to submit an interim report focused on Mr. Annan and his son, Kojo Annan, whose business dealings during Mr. Annan's tenure have come awkwardly close to various U.N. players, including a major U.N. Oil for Food contractor. One has to wonder if somewhere in all this, Mr. Annan's ample agenda might include a plan to bury the U.N.'s critics in an avalanche of U.N. reform reports.

That would be welcome, were Mr. Annan proposing real reform. But the basic problem with the U.N. is not that it doesn't have enough money, or enough Security Council members, or enough commissions, offices, reports and reform proposals.

The grand failure of the U.N. is that its system, its officials and most visibly its current secretary-general are still stuck in the central-planning mindset that was the hallmark of dictators and failed utopian dreams of the previous century. Mr. Annan's plan takes little practical account of a modern world in which competition, private enterprise and individual freedom are the principles of progress. He has his own agenda, which he would like the rest of us to follow and fund. The words sound lofty: “development, security, and human rights for all.” The devil is in the details, and because this is a blueprint for the future of the entire earth, that means a lot of room for big trouble. This report is not a benign document.
For example, the long section on aid shoves right past the realities to rattle the cup for more money flowing through the gullies of UN plans and bureaucracy, where so much has already vanished, or been diverted into support of bad governments that create precisely the conditions that inflict poverty. Someone needs to remind Mr. Annan that every dollar taxed away from the citizens of the rich nations of the world is a dollar less that's available for these same private citizens to buy goods for which there is genuine market-driven demand–that being the real engine of development.

Mr. Annan wants every poor country to produce–get ready for the mouthful–a “Millennium Development Goals-based” national strategy (meaning, in line with U.N. plans). By September he wants donor countries to produce “timetables and monitorable targets” to align aid delivery with all these strategies. Then, the U.N. will baste this all together into a plan even bigger than Oil for Food, which sounds like an unfortunate idea. Mr. Annan gets it partly right about the need for free trade, but he urges such openness only for the richest nations, not for the poorest–a vision that will make the rich richer, but do far less for the poor. Meanwhile, he deplores a growing income gap between rich and poor nations.

Some sections are almost comic, such as Mr. Annan's chiding the Security Council and General Assembly that when they assign tasks to the Secretariat, they must take care “that they also provide resources adequate for the task.” Yes, but as Oil for Food illustrated, even $1.4 billion in administrative funding was not enough to provide honesty and competence. The glitch was the abysmal, secretive and conflict-of-interest-ridden management of Mr. Annan's Secretariat, not lack of money. Mr. Annan notes that he wants more transparency and accountability, but he suggests this come from more reshuffling inside the U.N. itself, not from outside oversight. We have been here before.

In presenting his grand soufflé of a reform plan, Mr. Annan promised to work hard. We now face months of leaks about the latest in Mr. Annan's personal telephone diplomacy, leading up to his reform jamboree this September in New York. While this goes on, it would be useful to keep in mind that the real push for a better world on Mr. Annan's watch has come not from the U.N. but from a Bush administration that Mr. Annan has done plenty to thwart and revile. Mr. Annan includes high-sounding words in his report about U.N. “support” for elections in Iraq. They ring hollow when you consider that had Mr. Annan and the U.N. prevailed instead of Mr. Bush, Iraqis would still be living under Saddam (and the U.N. would still be running the rotten Oil for Food program).

How to reform the U.N. is a big question, in need of real debate and workable proposals from some quarter. What we got from Mr. Annan as he presented this latest menu for U.N. improvement was his warning that no one should pick and choose among his proposals “a la carte.” Great. If he really wants all or nothing, the next move is to toss this report, and start looking for a secretary-general who can get it right.

Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Her column appears in the Opinion Journal and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.



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