As Americans voted Tuesday in what may well be a referendum on Bush Administration policies at home and abroad, US Ambassador John Bolton once again breached UN protocol in New York, this time by prematurely announcing the appointment of former Washington Times editor Josette Shiner to head the World Food Program. Shiner, currently under secretary of state for economic, business and agricultural affairs, is tasked with pushing American business interests abroad. (A longtime member of Washington Times owner Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, Shiner left the paper in 1997 and the Church in 1996.
The Bush Administration's practice of favoring of ideological and dynastic loyalty over competence was responsible for FEMA's abysmal performance during Hurricane Katrina; with Shiner's appointment, it may well contribute to similar debacles worldwide. Shiner's main qualification for the Bush appointment was the many years she spent insuring that Moon's Washington Times flew the flag for the most atavistic brands of conservatism in the nation's capital. The other main candidate for the position was another American, the experienced and competent Tony Banbury, head of WFP in Asia.
Americans have long regarded the World Food Program  as their own--and with some justification. It was conceptualized by the Eisenhower Administration in 1960 and launched in 1962 as a means of recycling American agricultural surpluses, and because the Kennedy Administration was at loggerheads with Dr. Binay Ranjan Sen, then director of the Food and Agricultural Organization.
The WFP has done some good work, regardless of the marred altruism of its origins, but Oxfam and other critics have raised serious questions  about the economic effects on local agricultural viability of throwing free subsidized US food surpluses into countries. Those questions are likely to remain unanswered as Shiner advances the interests of US agribusiness.
Technically, the UN Secretary General makes all these appointments, but until recently, the international body always appointed whomever the US President wanted. Another Bush appointee, Christopher Burnham, who is UN under secretary general for management, overlooked the oath that an international civil servant such as himself takes on appointment to give up national loyalties and actually thanked Bush for his appointment in 2004. "I came here at the request of the White House....My primary loyalty is to the United States of America," Burnham told the Washington Post.
As conservatives in Congress have complained about managerial reforms at the UN, the one issue on which they stay resolutely silent is the patronage system by which the five permanent members of the UN Security Council control the UN's senior positions, setting the customary low standards for all other countries seeking nepotistic appointments for their nationals. Britain and France have generally named technically competent and often, for them, disappointingly independent people for the positions. But the United States has largely considered UN posts to be an extension of the presidential spoils system. These positions are not subject to senatorial confirmation, so the White House can appoint anyone it likes.
Last year, somewhat belatedly--and only after confirming an American, Bush nominee and former US Secretary for Agriculture Ann Veneman, as the head of UNICEF--Kofi Annan had a burst of independence. Annan and his deputy, Mark Malloch Brown, announced that merit and competence would be the measure for candidates for future high office, in place of the traditional "permanent five" nominations for his high-ranking officials. He replaced the British under secretary general for political affairs with a Nigerian, Ibrahim Gambari in a gesture greeted with a little cynicism by African diplomats who had waited nine years for their time in the sun.
The Shiner appointment is an abrupt reversal of this short-lived independence. It is a political disaster in its implications for the United Nations and reform, although it does us the favor of revealing the hypocrisy of John Bolton's earlier insistence that every Annan nominee should be fired as soon as his term finishes at the end of 2006. Bolton has made it plain that such limits do not apply to the Shiner appointment.
With an election that may break the Republican lock on the US government, his own tenure ending and John Bolton's unrenewable term as ambassador about to finish, it is intriguing why Annan should bow to American pressure.
He has always realized the importance of trying to keep Washington engaged in the United Nations for the organization to function, but on the face of it, if ever there was a propitious time for a declaration of independence, this was it.
In a recent interview with The Nation, Annan addressed the issue of appointments. "It is the new Secretary General's responsibility. He's the one who will have to put together his team and the people he has to work with. Obviously in doing that I am sure he will consult member states where it is necessary, but the appointment of senior staff should be the responsibility of the Secretary General without interference. He is the one who will determine whether everyone leaves or he keeps some of them for continuity while he's pressing for change." Technically the WFP job is filled by the Secretary General after consulting FAO director Jacques Diouf, but the Secretary General has the trump card.
Annan did consult his successor, Ban Ki-moon, about the Shiner appointment, who seems to have approved, but Annan's people insist that this was his own decision, which UN staff say was made in the face of strong administration pressure. One only hopes that there was some unwritten trade-off with the White House to make it worthwhile for the organization.
The issue goes beyond Shiner's competence. Washington is pushing for a US general to take over peacekeeping operations, which would destroy the political credibility of UN peacekeeping as a neutral force. Ban may use the Shiner appointment to fend off American demands--or this appointment could be a precursor of many more successful conservative infiltrations  into the world body.