Thursday, August 11, 2005

This week Benon Sevan, the United Nations official in charge of the corrupt oil-for-food program, resigned and accused his old friend, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, of throwing him to the wolves. The move came exactly one day before the official U.N. report, drawn up by former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, accused him of taking bribes for allocating lucrative oil contracts under the joint U.N.-Iraqi program devised by Mr. Annan with former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, now languishing in prison and threatening to reveal all at his forthcoming trial.

Meanwhile, President Bush in Washington has appointed tough-guy-diplomat John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. with instructions to clean up the world organization. But Senate Democrats and other “friends of the U.N.” are setting out to hamstring Mr. Bolton before he can get started. Now read on. Yes, it sounds a little like a soap opera — one with all the usual plot complications but, alas, without a good part for Joan Collins or Heather Locklear.

Hang on though, maybe Miss Locklear could play the part of Claudia Rosett, who, almost alone among the fearlessly non-partisan band of investigative journalists, delved deeply into the sleazy details of the oil-for-food program when the establishment media were dismissing it as a storm in an oil can. And in one of those plot twists that Hollywood scriptwriters earn millions for devising, Ms. Rosett, who exposed Mr. Sevan when he was still high, now comes to his defense on one vital point.

Mr. Sevan complains that he has been denied access to U.N. and other documents vital to his defense. Ms. Rosett endorses this — but argues it is par for the course. The Volcker committee has regularly denied vital documents to Mr. Sevan, reporters, investigating committees from the U.S. Congress and other interested parties.

Nor is this secrecy wholly innocent. Both Ms. Rosett and the New York Sun’s U.N.-watcher, Benny Avni, seem to think that Mr. Volcker will concentrate blame on a small number of U.N. officials, exonerate Mr. Annan of anything more serious than carelessness, and publish these findings on the eve of the September meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. These conclusions would likely then get overlooked amid the hoopla of major speeches by world leaders — notably, the new Iranian president outlining his vision of an Islamist Middle East, which is expected to be a highly controversial re-run of Yasser Arafat’s gun-toting address in the 1970s — and be pushed down the U.N.’s capacious memory hole.

Mr. Annan would then be able to change the subject to the reform of the U.N. He might even get the support of Mr. Bolton and the Bush administration to push reforms through. After which the elder statesman would make a graceful exit as the author of a revived and reformed world body.

It is an appealing prospect in many respects. It would get everyone off the hook. And old rivals from Mr. Annan to President Bush would all make gains. As so often, however, there is a snag in even the best-laid plans of mice and men. In this case, the snag is the nature of the reforms.

What the U.S., its more hard-headed allies such as Australia and Israel, newly-rising powers like China and India, and the GOP want from reform is a more efficient, more transparent and more realistic U.N. — one that would act as the diplomatic instrument of member-governments, and in particular, of the great powers. So Washington seeks to limit the size of the U.N. Security Council so that it can act promptly to deal with international crises, but it is leery about granting the U.N. more powers, authority or independent financial resources.

What the U.N. bureaucracy, the European Union, the smaller member-states and liberal Democrats want is a U.N. that would be the center of a growing nexus of “world governance” in which U.N. and other transnational bodies, funded by taxes on international transactions and policed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), would exercise increasing authority over member-states on behalf of “the international community” in such matters as climate change, resource exploitation and international investment.

In essence, the debate over U.N. reform is ultimately about whether sovereign nation-states or transnational U.N. bodies should be the main players in international relations. That helps to explain why the multilateralist Democrats in the U.S. Senate last May issued a report in which they tried to blame the oil-for-food scandal partly on the U.S. and Britain for not blowing the whistle on it earlier, and why they opposed sending such a strong advocate of U.S. national interests as John Bolton to Turtle Bay.

Mr. Annan would usually belong in the second camp of transnational reformers (or “Tranzis.”) But the oil-for-food scandal has both weakened him personally and tended to discredit the view that the U.N.should enjoy more power and independence. So, earlier this year, he inserted ideas designed to win over the Bush administration (such as producing the international legal definition of terrorism the U.S. has long wanted) in his U.N. reform package. And because other elements in that package have provoked serious opposition since then, the U.S. enjoys even more leverage over the final result.

How should we use it? The answer may be surprising. While the European, Chinese, Indians, Brazilians and Japanese are squabbling over the size and membership of the Security Council, Mr. Bolton should move to cut down the powers of the U.N. Secretariat.

This aspect of the U.N. receives little attention. But these largely unaccountable bureaucrats have been the cutting edge of the “Tranzi” revolution. By manipulating U.N. conferences on issues from climate change to sustainable development, they have imposed a sort of political agenda for “global governance” on national governments. And yet, because they are deeply stained by the oil-for-food scandal, they are today ill-placed to resist an attack on their powers and privileges.

Mr. Bolton has the chance to halt the transnational revolution in its tracks by way of reforming a dysfunctional U.N. After what the Senate Democrats did to him on the Tranzis’ behalf in the confirmation process, he has every reason to show no quarter.

John O’Sullivan is editor at large of the National Review.

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