The Bush administration, standing up against nipping at its heels from the right, is publicly backing Kofi Annan in his post as secretary general of the United Nations. But that doesn't mean the effort of conservatives to highlight the UN's shortcomings, both political and financial, will end any time soon.
An ongoing investigation into fraud at the UN-administered Iraq oil-for-food program is expected to deliver an interim report on involvement of UN personnel in January. Add to that the growing cries of the UN's ineffectiveness - some contend it's even undermining American goals - and the climb to smoother US-UN relations only looks steeper.
Despite that, the US is expressing confidence in Mr. Annan - at a critical moment when the UN is assisting in the organization of Iraqi elections set for January, but also as steam was gathering among some Republicans for Annan's ouster.
Last Thursday the US ambassador to the UN, John Danforth, ended what had been perceived as an unsupportive silence by declaring to reporters at the UN in New York that the White House and the State Department "are expressing confidence in the secretary general and in his continuing in office."
In addition Mr. Danforth, who recently announced his intention to leave the UN posting, said that UN efforts, not just in Iraq but in the Middle East and Sudan, meant that the US intends to work with Annan "for the time to come."
Those words laid to rest any doubts about the official US position on Annan, who had recently made clear his intention to remain in his job until his term expires at the end of 2006. Annan says he wants to dedicate his last two years to reforming the 191-nation body.
A high-level commission appointed by Mr. Annan recently announced recommendations for refashioning the world body into a more responsive and effective force in meeting 21st-century security challenges. But to some critics, the UN has sunk so low that the US should not even bother with its reform when America's international plate is already so full.
"The UN is so broken, so corrupt, so ineffective, and on top of that so unwilling to begin to contemplate the full implications of internal reform, that the Bush administration would be ill-advised to take this on as a foreign-policy priority," says Danielle Pletka, a foreign policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
Such exasperation with the UN, while a recurring theme, is on the rise in Congress again, where a growing chorus has been calling for Mr. Annan's resignation.
Last week 19 members of Congress sponsored a resolution calling for Mr. Annan's departure over the oil-for-food scandal. That followed on the heels of another resignation demand from Sen. Norm Coleman (R) of Minnesota, who heads a separate congressional investigation into growing evidence of fraud and corruption in the multibillion-dollar program. The program was designed to supervise what were supposed to be limited sales of oil by Saddam Hussein's Iraq in exchange for food and medicine.
Some Republicans are even calling for the US to withhold its UN dues - a favored tactic of anti-UN forces - unless the international body provides proof of full cooperation with oil-for-food investigations.
So far nothing implicates Annan in any wrongdoing in the program, a point Ambassador Danforth stressed in defending the secretary general. But critics point to estimates that fraud tied to Iraqi oil sales reached up to $20 billion - what the conservative National Review calls "the largest corruption scandal in the history of the world." That alone, critics say, is sufficient cause for Annan to leave.
Earlier this year Annan named former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to direct an investigation of the oil-for-food program, which ran from 1996 to 2003, and specifically to probe into any illicit involvement of UN officials.
Some members of Congress say the UN hasn't cooperated fully with US probes into corruption that is believed to have benefitted foreign banks and officials, among others.
At the same time, others say Annan shouldn't be tagged with the scandal - and suggest the US is not without responsibility in the sale of Iraqi oil at a time when Iraq was under international sanctions.
At a Monitor breakfast last week, Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana said responsibility for the program "appears to lie in the Security Council [and thus] may lie beyond Kofi Annan." He added that despite a ban on Iraqi oil sales, the US encouraged Iraqi sales through Jordan and in other cases when it served US diplomatic goals.
On a new website dedicated to the oil-for-food program, Oilforfoodfacts.org, the United Nations Foundation says that of $20 billion liberally attributed to illegal Iraqi oil sales under UN sanctions, a majority of revenue was from oil smuggling "outside the purview of the UN." The site says probes show that more than $13 billion was attributed to trade and smuggling that Security Council members including the US knew about but did little to stop.
Some say opposition to Annan is actually driven by his ill-timed declaration, days before the US election, that the Iraq war was "illegal" under international law.
"There's nothing to suggest Annan was involved in any way in [the scandal], but those who see the UN as obstructionist towards the use of American power will consider anything to disparage it," says Jeswald Salacuse of Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.