Posted on November 25, 1996 in Washington Watch

Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s campaign for reelection as Secretary General of the United Nations has generated an intensive debate in the U.S. At the same time, the U.S.’s opposition to the Secretary General has become a defining moment for the United Nations.

On one hand, U.S. opposition to Mr. Ghali appears to have been driven by partisan politics. Both isolationists from the far right and conservative internationalists who have supported American hegemony, made the U.N. a target during the presidential campaign. There was an appeal to bigotry in their attacks. When both far-right challenger Pat Buchanan and Republican nominee Bob Dole spoke about the U.N., they sought to personalize their attacks by singling out the Secretary General by name. In Buchanan’s address before the Republican convention and Dole’s address to the convention both used virtually the same language in their demand that “no U.S. soldiers should ever have to take orders from Boutros Boutros-Ghali.” And the way that they emphasized the foreign sounds of the name and the cheers and jeers that this generated made it clear that more than a little racism was at work here.

This campaign rhetoric reflected the growing resistance in Congress to support the U.N. For several years now Congress has been refusing to pay the full U.S. dues, especially to support U.N. peacekeeping missions. For some in Congress, the issue was the need for U.N. fiscal reform, for most it was hostility to the concept of a world body—which for the far-right is an anathema since in their view it subjugates U.S. sovereignty to the prospects of a “world government.”

Throughout this unseemly debate the Clinton Administration remained faithful to its support of the U.N. and defense of the principle of international cooperation. The President has even spoken highly of the Secretary General, praising him just over a year ago on his “leadership . . . energy . . . resolve . . . and vision of the world for the next fifty years.”

It is for this reason that many supporters of the U.N. and Boutros Boutros-Ghali were shocked six months ago when the Clinton Administration abruptly announced that it would refuse to endorse the Secretary General’s bid for a second term at the U.N. and demanded that he step down at the end of his term.

To some in the U.S. it appeared that the Administration was playing politics by attempting to take an issue away from the Republican Party. To those who supported the U.N. and international cooperation it represented a dangerous concession to far-right extremists.

It was generally assumed that once the elections were over the Administration would work out a compromise solution with the Secretary General and the issue would pass. Many prestigious editorial writers stated as much in pieces in the Washington Post and the New York Times and other major U.S. papers.

Now that the Administration has dug in its heels and provoked a near crisis situation at the U.N., there is a general sense of bewilderment, embarrassment, and some anger at the U.S. stand.

The Secretary General has received the support of a number of U.S. Senators, leaders of the U.S. Catholic Church, the National Council of Churches, representing all the major U.S. Protestant denominations, and major Jewish and Arab American leaders as well.

Senator Paul Simon (D-IL), before the November elections, charged that the Administration was “letting our own domestic politics determine a choice that should be made in our own national interest, and in the interests of the U.N. and the international community.”

He further stated that the U.S. position was “unfortunate since it was creating a wedge between the U.S. and our friends in Africa.” He went on to note that it was “unseemly that the U.S. which owes more back dues that any the nations of the world combined, has taken a position contrary to the majority of the U.N. members.”

After the November elections Simon again spoke out saying that the U.S. veto of Boutros Boutros-Ghali was “not worthy of a great power. Greatness suggests something other than a crude use of power.”

Echoing those thoughts, New York Times writer A.M. Rosenthal has accused the Administration of “squandering assets for no reason” in opposing the Secretary General. He charged that all of the Administration’s stated reasons for opposing Mr. Ghali’s reelection were baseless and urged the President to show that the “U.S. had not taken leave of common sense, self-interest or decent respect for the rights and opinions of friends.”

Writing in the Washington Post, Steven Rosenfeld chided the Clinton Administration for waging a campaign against Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Rosenfeld notes that the Administration has compromised its own support for the U.N. and has “unified just about every nation in the world” against the U.S.

What is especially troubling to many Americans who share the vision of a strong U.N. is the decidedly harsh and brazen rhetoric that has accompanied the assault on the Secretary General. The comments of an “unnamed U.S. official” are a case in point. Warning that the U.S. veto was irrevocable, the official stated,

    “The United States regrets the insistence of other countries on pushing at what is a closed, locked, and bolted door. We are determined to find a new secretary general, and the sooner the other members realize that, the sooner we can move ahead . . . Boutros-Ghali will not be secretary general on Jan. 1”

Appearing as a guest on my weekly radio program on the ANA Radio Network last week, Mr. Ghali was diplomatic as he addressed the U.S. position. He insisted that he did not create this crisis, nor did he fully understand the U.S. reasoning behind its opposition to his reelection. He maintained that he could not serve without U.S. support since the U.S. is the major super-power in the world today and insisted that he still hopes a compromise can be achieved.

The Secretary General deeply cares about the future of the world body and is committed to its reform and its role in the rapidly changing post-cold war world. He acknowledges his failures but is proud of his accomplishments, noting his fiscal reform measures, his leadership in focusing the world community on the problems of globalization, and efforts to support democracy.

Given the Secretary General’s record, the broad support he has received from virtually every member nation of the U.N., and the U.S.’s own commitment to international cooperation, the strident U.S. opposition to Mr. Ghali is indeed troubling.

The U.S. has clearly not established its case against the Secretary General and there are deep suspicions, particularly in the Arab world. Some suspect, for example, that the U.S. position is based entirely on a personal vendetta against Mr. Ghali, possibly due to his release of a report on the Qana massacre which embarrassed the Israeli government. Other view the U.S. move as a U.S. power play designed to impose its will on the world body.

Having failed to establish its case, the harsh U.S. position risks both U.S. credibility and U.N. legitimacy. The crisis has become a defining moment for the U.N. and for the U.S. role in the world body in the post-cold war era.

As both Rosenthal and Rosenfeld argue, with the U.S. refusing to pay its dues (it owes more in back dues that the entire annual U.N. budget), the U.S. is expending capital in this fight that it simply does not have.

And by playing into the hands of the far-right critics of the U.N. instead of fighting them, the Administration’s position in this effort only seems to further erode U.S. public confidence in the U.N. At the same time, the Administration is damaging U.S. leadership at the U.N. and the damage done here may be to the long-term detriment of the U.S. and the U.N. itself.

The Secretary General, to his credit, is aware of those multiple dangers. And while he does not want to contribute to the demise of the institution he has served, he appears to know that his fight for a compromise solution provides the best hope to save both the U.S. and the U.N. from the current disastrous impasse.

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