When United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed the world press on his triumphant return from Baghdad last month, he digressed from his deal with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to throw in some seemingly off-the-cuff words of praise for the head of a little-known UN agency that combats drugs.
The comment may be more calculated than casual, however. Basking in the glare of global attention, perhaps Mr. Annan was seeking to reflect some of it onto one of the new stars of his bid to reform the world body as he battles to win more support from the United States Congress.
Pino Arlacchi, the Italian crime-buster who took over the helm of the Vienna-based UN Drug Control Program (UNDCP) last year, is not a man in the UN bureaucratic mold. Formerly a top adviser to the Italian government in its fight against the Mafia, Mr. Arlacchi has shaken up a somnolent organization in his first few months on the job, ruffling feathers inside the agency, but winning plaudits from the governments who fund his work.
"He has brought the knowledge of a professional in the crime area and the astute skills of a politician to bear on this program," says Jane Becker, the State Department's second-ranking antidrug official. "He's made it much easier for us to justify providing additional funding to the United Nations."
"He's a guy who is absolutely in line with the new action-oriented, communications-oriented UN, who takes the bull by the horns," adds an admiring aide. "He's in line with the US approach of 'let's go out and do it.' "
That approach is typified by Arlacchi's ambitious plan to eradicate all coca bushes (from which cocaine is derived) and all opium poppies (from which heroin is refined) worldwide within 10 years.
He was trying to sell the plan this week to UNDCP member states, as they meet here to prepare for a special session of the UN General Assembly in June to map out a strategy to combat drug smuggling and abuse.
"Some people may feel that we are moving too fast and taking too many risks," he acknowledges. "But there is a growing feeling that now is the time to stamp out illegal drugs."
Not all the delegates were convinced, and the British in particular expressed reservations about how realistic the goal is. But Arlacchi has Washington's full backing. US drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey went out of his way to praise the UNDCP chief recently when he presented the State Department's annual report on international drug production, calling Arlacchi's performance "absolutely superb."
It is no accident that Annan is playing up the UN role in the battle against drugs. He was in Washington this week to plead with President Clinton for the US to make up its $1.3 billion in arrears in UN contributions. The UNDCP, its officials say, is an example of the world body working in harmony with American interests.
Arlacchi himself is keen to play the role as a "golden boy" of UN reform. "I would like to have direct contact with the Congress and US public opinion to show them that this is a good part of the system," he says. "If you are doing something good, you should go out and sell it."
Not that the reforms of his agency, such as cutting out bureaucratic levels of decisionmaking, have been painless. "I found strong resistance in top management," he says, and overcoming it was "more difficult than fighting drugs."
But Arlacchi says he has been able to count on Annan's support in his efforts. "I told Kofi Annan that I would not come here just to be a UN bureaucrat ... and he said that this was exactly the reason he wanted to appoint me. He gave me carte blanche."
Annan likes to draw attention to other recent top appointments he has made from outside the system in his drive to streamline the UN, such as Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, to head the UN human rights agency and Klaus Topfler, the German minister of urban development, to run the UN Environment Program.
The UNDCP may be easier to reform than some other UN structures: It is only seven years old and has just 60 professional staff in its Vienna office. At the same time, almost all of its work is funded by money that donor countries can earmark for specific projects - training police or providing alternative income to peasants who had harvested poppies, for example - which gives governments close control over the way their funds are used.
"This program is unique because it is run mostly on voluntary donations," says Ms. Becker, acting assistant secretary of state for narcotics and law enforcement, who is leading the US delegation to this week's meeting here. "We know we are spending our money on projects that are synergistic with our own strategy.
"To compare this program with the rest of the United Nations is apples and oranges," she says. As Washington reviews its funding for UN agencies on a "case by case basis ... this is an example of a multilateral program that works."