PHILADELPHIA -- Would someone please explain why the Clinton administration has launched a messy public campaign to oust United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali?
The whole business is rather ugly. Last month, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said publicly that Washington will veto a second five years for Mr. Boutros-Ghali, whose tenure expires at the end of this year. Mr. Boutros-Ghali says he will run anyway.
Most member states, including U.S. allies, are furious that deadbeat America -- $1.2 billion in arrears in its U.N. dues -- has acted so high-handedly. They may back Mr. Boutros-Ghali, despite the veto threat. And they can block an alternative candidate. There even exists a 1950 precedent of members overriding a Soviet veto to re-elect a U.S.-backed incumbent, Trygve Lie of Norway.
So why did Mr. Christopher go public with what is usually a behind-the-scenes process? The secretary offers a highfalutin reason. Congress won't cough up the U.S. arrears, he says, unless the U.N. selects a tough reformer and down-sizer (which Mr. Boutros-Ghali is not) to grapple with the organization's bloated bureaucracy. He adds that the United Nations may not even survive without such an administrator.
Maybe so. Mr. Boutros-Ghali certainly has his faults, but he has proposed cutting 1,000 people from the world body's 10,000 permanent employees and adopting other economies. And to be fair, the secretary general can't do major paring of the U.N. organization without members' consent.
If the United States is so eager to replace him with a tough administrator, why hasn't it floated an alternative candidate who fills the bill? During the past four months when Mr. Christopher was supposedly urging the secretary general to consider retirement, the only names circulating as possible replacements were not known as tough administrators.
The unilateral approach of the Clinton team almost guarantees a succession struggle. Several Security Council members were not consulted before Mr. Christopher's bombshell, including China, which has a veto on the Security Council. Why should it now go along with a U.S.-backed choice?
Not even America's allies are sympathetic to the U.S. so long as Congress refuses to pay up the U.S. arrears. After Mr. Christopher's announcement, ambassadors from the 15 Security Council members -- including Britain, France, Italy and Russia -- met for lunch and launched a stinging attack on the U.S. representative, Edward Gnehm.
They argued that the question of U.N. downsizing was irrelevant, given that the organization was going bankrupt because of deadbeat America. Given that reality, how could the administration expect to dictate the choice of a new secretary general? And would a U.S. Congress -- especially one run by Republicans -- pay up America's arrears even if Mr. Boutros-Ghali were gone?
Nor are allies like France, Italy and others convinced by America's critique of Mr. Boutros-Ghali's political skills.
Ambassador Madeleine Albright, America's U.N. Ambassador, has bitterly criticized his reluctance to use force in Bosnia. But the U.N. peacekeeping operation in Bosnia put the secretary general in an impossible position: America dumped the responsibility on the U.N. because the Clinton team didn't want to exert leadership, then blamed it for not doing a job that required NATO.
From the vantage point of other U.N. members, there is only one explanation for U.S. behavior: campaign politics. Republican candidate Bob Dole loves to level the (absurd) charge that Mr. Boutros-Ghali ran U.S. foreign policy on Bill Clinton's watch; right-wing talk show hosts love to mispronounce Mr. Boutros-Ghali's name. Getting rid of the U.N.'s prime symbol would make President Clinton look tough, especially when the prickly Egyptian has often clashed in policy and personality with U.S. officials.
But how many isolationists will vote for Mr. Clinton even if he promises to level the United Nations? As for centrist voters, polls show that the U.N. rates fairly high among them. So is the campaign reason enough to start a messy public squabble -- one that the administration might lose?
The battle with Mr. Boutros-Ghali is the kind of ad hoc operation that has gotten the administration into trouble before. The Clinton team wanted him to go, but had no plan for what to do if he said ''no.'' Faced with his resistance, the Clinton team took the battle public, but without an apparent strategy to counter Mr. Boutros-Ghali's determination to fight to the bitter end.
A reformer at the U.N. helm matters only if its most important member country has a concept of what it wants the world body to do. The Clinton administration, including Ms. Albright, came into office with far too grandiose a concept of the role of multilateral diplomacy. Now that this concept has failed, no one seems to be able to think beyond the Congress-dictated concept of paring the world body down.
Rather than obsess over Mr. Boutros-Ghali and downsizing, the administration would do better to answer the question: Pare the U.N. down for what? Only when America has a new vision for it can the Clinton team figure out the qualifications needed for U.N. secretary-general. Until then, keeping Mr. Boutros-Ghali in the job makes the most sense.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Pub Date: 7/02/96