''The United States regrets the insistence of other countries on pushing at what is a closed, locked, and bolted door." This is the way an American official refers to Washington's unyielding resistance to reelecting Egypt's Boutros Boutros-Ghali as UN secretary-general when his first term ends Dec. 31. We regret the insistence of the United States on pushing against the choice of all 14 other members of the Security Council.
But the process did not end with the US veto of Mr. Boutros-Ghali's reelection in the Council this week. If there is no meeting of the minds, the conflict could begin to recall the reelection case of the first secretary-general, Trygve Lie. Then the Soviet Union was the vetoer, and the US was on the side of reelection.
The issue went to the General Assembly, to which the Security Council is supposed to recommend a candidate for approval. With the USSR preventing such a recommendation, the assembly voted to "extend" Lie's tenure for three years instead of naming him to a new term. The controversy grew personal, with Russian jeers at Lie's girth similar to Republican jeers at Boutros-Ghali's name during the US election campaign.
Republican opposition is seen as one reason for the Clinton administration's opposition, neutralizing the secretary-general as a partisan issue. With the campaign over, several policy analysts have urged the administration to shift its position - not an unprecedented action. It could go so far as to accept majority rule in the Security Council. Or it could agree, as in the Lie case, to some extension rather than "new term" for Boutros-Ghali.
US spokespersons say Congress will never authorize payment of the US's massive arrears in UN dues as long as Boutros-Ghali is there. The identity of any secretary-general is a poor excuse for any country not meeting its UN obligations.
Boutros-Ghali could make it easy for America by removing his name from consideration. But he is hanging in there. Trygve Lie did, too, reportedly saying that, if he had withdrawn, he would have given Russians the "smoothest sailing" ever in a political conflict.
Now the widespread international support for Boutros-Ghali seems prompted at least partly by resistance to America's unilateral bolting of the door. The secretary-general has had both critics and admirers on the merits of his performance.
And ideally merits, rather than politics, would be the basis not only for reelecting but for nominating a secretary-general in the first place. There is an argument for representing various parts of the world, and Boutros-Ghali's African colleagues demand that their continent's first secretary-general not be the first to be limited to one term. But, at a time that managerial reform of the UN is called for, there is an argument for using management principles of recruiting when the current controversy has passed. Surely a search committee is no less necessary for a world organization than for a college, museum, or Nobel prize. And place of origin would be a factor but not a controlling factor in naming candidates.