The ignoble abuse of the noble UN

When Madeleine Albright was US ambassador to the United Nations, and engaged in an obsessive campaign to become secretary of State, she called a New York Times reporter who'd written a story mildly critical of her performance as ambassador.

"She was in tears," said the reporter, astonished. "She kept telling me I was destroying her chances of getting the job at State, and that I needed to help her."

There were more extraordinary scenes between Ms. Albright and then UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who has just published a book detailing some of them. When he declined to bend to her demands, she would exclaim angrily: "You're making me look bad in Washington."

Mr. Boutros-Ghali was himself waging a career campaign, to win a second term as secretary-general. Ironically, as Albright sought his cooperation to bring her agenda to successful conclusion, so did he need her to plead his case with the US, the superpower with sway at the UN. But the chemistry between them was terrible. Albright dismissed Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian, as a stubborn third-worlder who didn't understand he should jump when the US barked. Boutros-Ghali, a proud and patrician diplomat with a touch of arrogance, disdained Albright as a self-promoter, more interested in soundbites than substantive diplomacy.

Both had become pawns and players in the US presidential race then under way. If Bill Clinton lost the race to Bob Dole, Albright's hopes of becoming secretary of State would founder. But Boutros-Ghali had become an issue in the election and Albright was charged by the White House with neutralizing him - a White House she hoped would be grateful if she succeeded.

Senator Dole had taken to UN-bashing at his campaign rallies, and making fun of Boutros-Ghali's name. Right-wing extremists charged that the UN was undermining the US Constitution (nonsense), that American peacekeeping forces were placed under non-American officers (not true), and that Boutros-Ghali was anti-American (in fact he was criticized in much of the third world for being pro-American).

No matter that opinion polls showed overwhelming public US support for the work of the UN. No matter that Clinton had praised Boutros-Ghali handsomely at the UN's 50th anniversary celebrations a few months earlier. In the face of the Republican assault, the White House pursued a tawdry campaign to make Boutros-Ghali remove himself as a potential obstacle on the road to Clinton's reelection.

Policy was relegated. Politics reigned. This at a time when the administration's foreign policy was already at a low point of indecisiveness and vacillation. The US had retreated from Somalia; turned tail in Haiti; dithered in Bosnia. At the very time the US sought to galvanize the UN as an instrument of US foreign policy, Albright and Boutros-Ghali were locked in personal conflict; the UN was overextended in dangerous peacekeeping operations for which it was ill-equipped; the US congress had hobbled the UN by withholding millions of dollars in dues.

I must here declare a peculiar conflict of interest. Earlier I had served as assistant secretary of State in the Reagan administration, and foreign-policy spokesman for Secretary of State George Shultz. I respected America's professional diplomats and the underlying, bipartisan goals of American foreign policy. Now I had accepted an invitation from Boutros-Ghali to serve a one-year assignment as assistant secretary-general and director of the UN's communications. I did so largely because of the respect I had developed as a foreign correspondent for the UN's humanitarian and other achievements around the world.

Imagine the sadness I felt as an opportunity slipped away for these great institutions - the US and UN - to move the world significantly toward peace and prosperity. Some of the tension in the relationship now has gone. Albright has contentedly achieved her place in history as the first woman secretary of State. Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian diplomat of great talent and charm, is secretary-general. The US is moving to end its disgraceful foot-dragging and pay some of its outstanding UN debt.

But in the declining months of the Clinton administration we cannot expect the incumbent president to be seized by the vision of what the UN can become. There are many things the UN cannot do. It cannot mount the kind of military operations in Bosnia and Kosovo that NATO has. It can bring shelter to refugees, food to the starving, water to villages that have no water, and address as perhaps no other institution can the irreversible forces of globalization.

That is a challenge and opportunity for a new American president. It is one that he - or she - should be pondering now.

*John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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