Khalilzad: Good News and Bad for UN

Khalilzad: Good News and Bad for UN

Zalmay Khalilzad promises be a more effective US ambassador to the UN, but is that a good thing?


The impending appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad to replace John Bolton as US ambassador to the United Nations is mixed news. Khalilzad takes his directions from Vice President Dick Cheney, and since the beginning of the Reagan Administration he has been an ardent supporter of the various neocon adventurist positions.

While he almost certainly shares the neocons’ bedrock contempt for international law and the UN, Khalilzad does not carry Bolton’s baggage: decades of obsessive fulmination against the international body. As a Muslim of Afghan descent who possesses more social and diplomatic graces than his predecessor, he will probably do a better job of advancing the White House agenda.

Progressives who called for the dismissal of Bolton might have crossed their fingers and hoped he stayed. After all, do we really want an effective diplomat representing the Bush-Cheney agenda? Much better, surely, to have an ineffective bully and blowhard who provokes opposition than someone who has charm and diplomatic skills. We may now be seeing that experiment in real time.

But Khalilzad’s appointment leaves open the question of who will be the next US nominee to high office in the UN. It was rumored that he was under consideration to be under secretary general for political affairs, and the United States had expressed interest in taking over the position as head of peacekeeping.

The French seem to think that they have a lock on peacekeeping… but then the British thought that their man John Holmes was on the trail for that or political affairs until he ended up in the important but less politically sensitive position heading humanitarian affairs, so there may be room for disappointment. Maybe Paris misinterpreted Ban Ki-moon’s still-less-than-perfect French? Perhaps to ward off American interest, Ban has reportedly been considering splitting the responsibilities of peacekeeping between its administrative and logistical side and the more overtly political aspects.

There still may be the chance for a nightmare scenario in which Bolton is nominated for one of the presumed American senior positions in the UN hierarchy. I advance this theory for several reasons: The Bush Administration is arrogant and/or stupid enough to try such a stunt, and Bolton is obsessive enough about the UN to seek another post. But my main reason for raising it is prophylactic–the hope that people will be so horrified at the thought that they will not let it happen. (Note that these positions are not subject to confirmation by the US Senate since they are technically made by the secretary general. It is considered polite for everyone to pretend not to notice US arm-twisting when the Secretary General makes his decision..)

However, we should not get too personal about Bolton. It would be a disaster for the United Nations and the United States to have any American identified with this White House (or for that matter the previous one) heading such crucial departments.

Indeed, Britain’s recent close proximity to US positions probably counted against the appointment of Holmes to the peacekeeping post. The advantage of the UN for rational American policy is not only that it provides a global legion of sepoys to carry out duties that would swamp the US military. An independent globally respected body can implement resolutions, even American-inspired ones, while one that is overtly American-dominated would have far less credibility. Indeed, the perception of following narrow American interests that would accompany almost any conceivable nomination from this Administration would put UN staff and peacekeepers across the world at considerable risk.

For all the complaints from Republicans in Congress, Washington has always had far more say in the UN than is good for the organization, and while on one level such senior appointments would line up perceptions with reality, they would reap no benefits for anyone.

If Ban Ki-moon thinks that putting a US-approved appointee in such jobs will insulate the organization from criticism, he should consider that American presidential-patronage nominees have been in charge of UN management for fifteen years of unrelenting American media and Congressional criticism of UN management.

In fact, the first item of any serious reform of the UN was already derailed by the United States with the enforced appointment of Josette Sheeran Shiner as head of the World Food Program, which rescinded Kofi Annan’s already belated declaration of personnel independence.

Ban Ki-moon was off to a good start in reclaiming that lost ground by appointing two women–Alicia Bárcena of Mexico to the traditionally US-held position of under secretary general for management, and Dr. Asha-Rose Migiro of Tanzania (hitherto foreign minister) as his deputy, replacing Mark Malloch Brown, the retiring British incumbent.

Let us hope he intends to keep it up.

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