Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

18th February 2001

Heralding a policy of isolation

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NEW YORK— Spy, the satirical magazine known to crucify politicians of all shades, once asked a group of freshly-elected US Congressmen what they propose to do about the political crisis in "Freedonia."

Some of them, who did not have their aides within whispering distance, gave ambivalent answers while others proclaimed rather indignantly that "something had to be done about it" — not realizing that "Freedonia" was the name of a fictitious country in a classic Marx Brothers comedy.

One New York politician, who ran for a Senate seat last year, thought that the former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung had Roman numerals in his name and described him as "Kim the Second Sung."

Although some US Congressmen are thoroughly knowledgeable about foreign affairs, most of them are too insular to think beyond their noses— and the shores of the United States.

The right wing conservative Republicans, who are a powerful political force in the present US administration headed by President George W. Bush, are expected to veer the country towards a policy of isolation.

Perhaps this policy is already evident in how the Bush administration proposes to treat the United Nations.

The Republican view is that the United Nations is not only an institution that is overstaffed, badly managed and crying out for a radical restructuring but that it also has outlived its usefulness.

President Bush, who took office on January 20, is yet to name a US Ambassador to the United Nations - even though all other key appointments have been made so far.

"I don't think the Republicans will have much faith in the United Nations," one Third World diplomat complained last week. "The signs are already visible," he said, referring to the absence of a new US envoy since the departure of Richard Holbrooke last month.

The post, which was held by Holbrooke and had cabinet rank under the Bill Clinton administration, is also to be downgraded.

If it declines in rank, the US envoy to the United Nations will be just another diplomat heading a US mission, this time in New York, not in a far-flung outpost in Asia or Africa.

Madeleine Albright, a former US ambassador (1993-1997), not only held cabinet rank but also ended up as US Secretary of State under the Clinton administration. So did her successor Ambassador Bill Richardson (1997-1998) who eventually went on to become Energy Secretary.

The rank of US envoy to the United Nations has see-sawed over the years: in 1961 Adlai Stevenson held cabinet rank, but in 1989 Thomas Pickering did not.

At least two potential candidates for the job: former Congressman Lee Hamilton and former presidential aspirant Elizabeth Dole are said to have turned down the job because it will not have cabinet rank under the Bush administration.

Asked what message Washington is giving the United Nations in not naming an ambassador, US Secretary of State Colin Powell told a UN news briefing last week: "It shouldn't cause the United Nations here in New York any concern whatsoever."

Addressing reporters during his first official visit to the United Nations, Powell said that "it takes us a while in our process to come up with people for jobs."

"I am still the only new official in the State Department, and I can tell you that, while I am surrounded by superb colleagues in the professional service, I am still a little bit lonely."

Powell said he was anxious for new people to be appointed. But he assured UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that this process is well underway, and a new US ambassador will be named "in the not too distant future." One of the reasons for the delay may well be the longstanding rightwing Republican perspective of the world body.

Holbrooke was quoted as saying that the Bush administration has only three choices regarding the United Nations: firstly, it can leave the UN as it is and eventually its weakness will undermine its potential effectiveness.

Secondly, it can abandon the UN and yield to the far right Republicans who aim to destroy the world body.

Or thirdly, the Bush administration can proceed from the understanding that the UN is flawed but still indispensable to American national interest, and therefore make it more effective.

After a closed door meeting with Annan, Powell publicly expressed the administration's support for the United Nations.

"I took the opportunity this afternoon in our conversation to express to the Secretary-General our strong support, the President's (George W. Bush) strong support, of the work of the United Nations", he said.

"We look forward to working very closely with the Secretary-General and our other colleagues within the United Nations - the other member nations - in dealing with the various problems that exist in the world today," he added.

It is left to be seen whether Powell will be able to deliver the goods — against a rising tide of animosity towards the United Nations by right wing Republicans.

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