August 23, 2005 | Wall Street Journal (Opinion Journal)

The U.N.-Touchables

If you thumb through the U.N. portion of this pile, however, the real agenda seems to be that once the member states have failed to reach meaningful agreement, Secretary-General Kofi Annan will whip out a plan focused not on salvaging U.N. integrity but on boosting his own sagging reputation–a task that to all appearances has become one of the main missions of the modern U.N. For Mr. Annan's supporters it has to be frustrating work. The investigation Mr. Annan himself authorized into Oil for Food has by now given him more than a year to cover up his family and crony connections to the scandal, and he's still having to resort to memory gaps–being, as he is, busy with reform.

Right now, this translates into such previews as a recent U.N. press release quoting Mr. Annan's view that the September gathering will be a ” 'once in a generation opportunity' to forge a global consensus on development, security, human rights and U.N. renewal.” (Which is pretty much what he said when forging his last consensus on reform, in 2002; and his even bigger consensus before that, in 1997.)

Into this smithy will venture the new U.S. ambassador, John Bolton, dispatched by President Bush to–in the president's words–“provide clear American leadership for reform.” What does that mean in practice? On this score, U.N. etiquette requires a sober point-by-point debate, ticking off the high points of Mr. Annan's latest proposal for the U.N.–which can't even manage its own management department–to run the known universe. This can then be countered by a detailed rundown of proposals from various quarters, especially Congress, to moderate the U.N.'s ambitions somewhat. At that stage, most of the audience has gone to sleep, which, for a U.N. Secretariat that by now needs a crib sheet to keep track of its own scandals, counts as success.

So let's talk straight. Serious, deep, sweeping reform is not going to happen at the U.N. next month. To cut a clean swath through 170 heads of state surrounded by umpteen press contingents, harried ambassadors, business lobbyists and hotel room service trolleys, all embedded in tons of U.N. paperwork and surrounded by the world's biggest traffic jam, is beyond the powers of any mere mortal.

Mr. Bolton's real challenge begins when the last of the motorcades roars back to JFK Airport. He will then be facing a self-advertised born-again U.N., where all problems can be blamed on the presummit era, and a new grace period lies ahead–in which the same old crowd will be free to pursue the same old policies that have by now earned the U.N. rights to set up its own Department of Scandal Management (complete with U.S. taxpayers picking up much of the tab for the business lunches and staff retreats).

A few things, however, are within Mr. Bolton's power. Most important is that he simply perform the immense public service of telling Americans–who represent the bulk of the U.N.'s so-called global taxpayers–the truth about what goes on inside the institution. The last time anyone in possession of both a fancy title and a U.N. grounds pass attempted that feat was when President Reagan sent Jeane Kirkpatrick to serve as his U.N. ambassador back in 1981.

To that end, Mr. Bolton would do well to shove aside his stack of U.N. papers for an evening and arm himself with two pieces of research not currently included in the curriculum. The first is a new book, “The U.N. Gang: A Memoir of Incompetence, Corruption, Anti-Semitism and Islamic Extremism at the U.N. Secretariat,” due out in September and written by a longtime U.S. civil servant, Pedro Sanjuan. Mr. Sanjuan was sent to the U.N. by the Reagan administration in 1983 to help Ms. Kirkpatrick figure out what was really going on inside the place–which at the time doubled as the main U.S. outpost of the KGB. He remained at the U.N. for a decade, with the assignment, as he himself describes it, of serving as America's top spy at Turtle Bay. In that capacity, he was wildly outnumbered by his opposition. But he did have two tools that gave him leverage: a sense of humor and a gift for plain speaking. These he brings to bear in tackling such questions as “What then does the 'executive' office of the executive office of the Secretary-General do?” (If that sentence sounds redundant, the problem lies not in Mr. Sanjuan's prose, but in the U.N. system.)

A sense of humor is vital in tackling the U.N., because it is about the only way to deflate the doings there enough to discern what is actually going on. One of the institution's chief defenses against real reform is the sheer difficulty of puzzling out through the jargon and organizational spaghetti such items as who does what (never mind why, or at what price). Citing the case of a U.N. employee fired from the U.N. in the 1990s for speaking up about thievery and other abuses, Mr. Sanjuan warns that “the crooks, the hardened criminals, the spies, the terrorist sympathizers, the nepotists, and the racists at the U.N. don't like to be interfered with. To try to call their bluff is to commit suicide without the recognition of martyrdom.”

That is precisely the task for which Mr. Bolton has so far shown himself richly qualified. To his much-quoted quip that the U.N. could lose 10 stories and it wouldn't matter, he is now in a position to add some clear explanations of why it would actually help.

But his first obstacle on the job will be his own staff at the U.S. mission. These are by and large the folks dispatched by the same murky area of the State Department whence a “senior administration official, speaking anonymously,” told the New York Times earlier this month that “most of the reforms sought by the United States are well on their way to completion.”

Oh really? We still have a U.N. that in almost all respects secretly audits itself, provides no clear consolidated budget and no transparent roster of personnel, and, along with the still-expanding saga of billions skimmed by Saddam Hussein out of its former Oil for Food program, has had scandals roiling in recent times through its audit, procurement and peacekeeping departments, as well as sundry agencies in Geneva.

Two officials have recently been fingered for taking six-figure bribes. The secretary-general himself, as well as his son, his brother, a close family friend and at least two of his former special advisers, are all at this point entangled in the oil-for-fraud investigations. Trails of corruption lead on in such directions as the Kremlin, the Elysée, Beirut and Beijing. And over at the U.S. mission is a staff some of whom have had a ringside seat for years at these proceedings, but in public kept a politely zipped lip. By now, they have their own vested interests in continued silence.

Which leads to the other guide Mr. Bolton might profitably page through. That would be an old book, published in 1957, “The Untouchables”–the story of how a small band of dedicated men, led by federal agent Eliot Ness, performed the mission impossible of cleaning up the Prohibition-era Chicago mob of Al Capone. Written by Ness himself, with the help of Oscar Fraley, the tale begins with Ness's realization that even the most honest of Chicago cops could not get the job done. The mob regime was too powerful and entrenched. To succeed, Ness needed two things: full backing from his boss in Washington, and a small squad of his own men, brought in from outside.

If Mr. Bolton wants Washington's backing, all the signs are that he had better talk right past the State Department and keep explaining the U.N.'s real workings, loud and clear, to his big boss's real employers–the U.S. electorate. And if he wants people capable of cleaning up the U.N., he may have to recruit from the far frontiers of those who have never before set foot in the old boys' clubs of the Eastern corridor. When the dust settles this autumn on the latest greatest all-new reforms of the September summit, Mr. Bolton's real job begins. And if he emerges from that jamboree with the U.N. establishment howling for his departure, we'll know he's off to a good start.

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

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