Major powers want the world's chief civil servant - the UN secretary-general - to lead. But only in limited ways.
When the UN's Kofi Annan visits Washington, the most powerful voice on his inner board (the permanent members of the UN Security Council), he has to deal with this reality.
The US has demanded that he lead unswervingly in cutting UN staff and budgets. It has been more ambivalent about his leadership in finding a face-saving way to avoid war over Iraq while restarting biological and chemical weapons inspections. And it continues to express doubt that he has been tough enough in that deal.
So Annan goes to the White House today, ostensibly to reassure President Clinton in person that the Baghdad deal won't gradually erode. Also to remind the US Congress that it gets its money's worth from the UN. And, oh yes, you can't really say money's worth until the US actually pays its long overdue arrears. It should.
Clinton knows that Annan's mission to Baghdad saved him from starting a half-war that would have accomplished little - except to heighten distrust of the US in the Mideast and among many of its allies. The UN leader, in turn, realizes that his deal wouldn't have been possible without a credible threat of US air strikes. Furthermore, fulfillment of the deal is aided by continued US toughness.
But the US can't just talk tough, and file and forget Iraq now. It urgently needs to rethink its failing Mideast policies. That means reviewing what pressures and incentives are needed to revive Israeli-Palestinian land-for-peace bargaining. It means exploring a new relationship with Iran, without which it's hard to imagine control of super-weapons, or safety of petroleum routes. And it also means a long-range plan for bringing Iraq back into nondestructive relations with its neighbors and the US.