May 13, 2010 | Forbes.com
Paging Ambassador Susan Rice
In secret ballot, the United Nations General Assembly has just elected Libya's dictatorship to one of the 47 seats on the U.N. Human Rights Council. Where in the makings of this travesty was oddly quiet U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice?
For that matter, where was Rice when the misogynist rulers of Iran, murderers last year of peaceful protester Neda Soltan, won a seat last month–by acclamation, no less–on the U.N.'s commission for women's rights? Where was Rice when Libya's candidate won the presidency last year of the current General Assembly?
At a U.N. so lacking in moral compass that all this counts for business as usual, the U.S. made no fuss. Washington went with the flow.
In the calculus of the Obama administration all this may rate as mere diplomatic horse-trading. Apparently in the latest round of U.N. seat-filling, the State Department quietly succeeded in derailing Iran's bid for a seat on the Human Rights Council. As a consolation prize Iran got smooth sailing into a berth as an authority on women's rights. Meanwhile the gaggle of despotisms already on the Human Rights Council (including China, Russia, Cuba and Saudi Arabia) lost the chance to consort there with Iran, but can comfort themselves by collaborating with Libya.
For America to swim along with this is not smart diplomacy. It is at best naïve. It emboldens the worst violators of civilized norms, and further compounds the already alarming failings of the U.N., a sprawling and opaque collective which lends itself to exploitation by the most ruthless and corrupt of its 192 member states. Over the years the only real check on U.N. depravity has been U.S. leadership and oversight–moral, political and administrative.
President Barack Obama favors a major role for the U.N. in U.S. foreign policy. One of his first appointments was his ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, on whom he bestowed cabinet rank. Last year Obama became the first U.S. president to chair a meeting of the Security Council. Also last year the U.S. joined the dysfunctional Human Rights Council, with Rice arguing that the way to salvage U.N. sinkholes is work from within.
That's Obama's call. But cozying up to the U.N. comes with responsibilities for standing up to the liars, crooks and tyrants who seize every chance to exploit the institution. These days Washington shows limp interest in oversight, despite U.S. taxpayers providing roughly one-quarter of a U.N. system-wide budget now well upward of $25 billion per year.
For instance, one of the top slots at the U.S. Mission is for an envoy for U.N. management and reform. Since Obama took office 16 months ago that post has yet to be filled. The Mission has made do with an acting ambassador, flashing a clear message that for all the U.S. “engagement,” the chronic need to clean the bilges of the U.N. ranks low among Washington's priorities.
Or take another example. A few years ago, in the wake of such U.N. scandals as Oil-for-Food and the discovery of massive corruption in the U.N. procurement department, the U.S. Mission began posting detailed critiques of U.N. budgets, plus copies of U.N. internal audit reports. This helped bring a glimmer of much-needed transparency to the murky, self-serving and graft-laced inner workings of the U.N.
Under Obama, the U.S. Mission stopped updating this information. The most recent audits posted are from 2008. Interviewed by phone this week, a spokesman for the mission said the posting of U.N. internal audits has been “temporarily suspended” since early 2009, pending a redesign of the website and a review of past policy. He added that the policy has now been approved, and the backlog of U.N. internal audits omitted since late 2008 should be posted “within a matter of weeks.”
Meanwhile the U.N. has been oozing signs of rot within. The Obama administration may not look kindly on Fox News, but Rice would be doing herself a service to read a series of recent articles on the U.N. by Fox News Executive Editor George Russell. He's a veteran reporter of the old gumshoe school, with a knack for digging up the kind of U.N. internal documents that the U.S. Mission has stopped posting.
Russell's recent dispatches have included the April 20 story, “U.N.'s Ballooning $732 Million Haiti Peacekeeping Budget Goes Mostly to Its Own Personnel” (not to earthquake stricken Haitians). On April 27 he reported that while the U.N. is telling the rest of the world how to behave to save the planet, an internal U.N. report has documented that the U.N.'s “own environmental housekeeping is a ‘scattered' mess”–costly, opaque, ad hoc and incoherent. In yet another article, April 16, he covered “Pricey Peacekeeping: Ban Gets Blasted for Billion-Dollar Mismanagement,” based on a U.N. internal report that described waste, abuses and chronic bungling at the U.N.'s highest levels.
There's no need to rely solely on Fox, however. In March The New York Times reported that after stonewalling for months, the U.N. World Food Program, confronted with a harsh report by a U.N. sanctions monitoring group, finally admitted that its Somali operations were rife with corruption and diversion of supplies from impoverished Somalis to Islamist militants.
In April the Associated Press reported that the U.N. may be greatly overstating the achievements of its showcase program to fight malaria by providing millions of bednets in Africa. Apparently U.N. claims are based on “mathematical modeling,” while the AP story cites critics who say there's little data to show people are using the bednets; pesticides might do more to save human lives.
Credit the U.N. that some of its recent decay has been discovered by its own internal investigators. But that's nothing all that new. The real challenge has always been to bring such findings to light, and do something about them. That shouldn't be a job left chiefly to private critics of the United Nations. For an Obama administration seeking to route vital foreign policies of state via the U.N., top priorities ought to be both moral leadership and nitty-gritty oversight. Fail on those fronts, and, shades of Oil-for-Food, you are heading down the road to scandal and fiasco, on everything from bednets for children to sanctions on Iran.
Claudia Rosett, a journalist in residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.