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    Middle East
     May 3, 2005
How Bolton would reform the UN
By Maggie Mitchell Salem

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

While Democrats in the United States Senate are scouring Washington for other victims of John Bolton's ideological zeal (and dubious management style), the White House is turning the screws on waffling Republicans. When Moses parted the Red Sea the opposing walls of water could not compare with the partisan divide on Bolton's nomination to America's top post at the United Nations.

But I'll forgo divining the outcome of the Bolton confirmation hearings.

All right, since you've twisted my arm, I'll tell you: he's going to make it, though just barely and with stern admonishments to make nice with our foreign friends. Besides, do you really think the next nominee would be a French wine-swilling connoisseur of diplomatic niceties?

What troubles Democrats, and a number of Republicans, is Bolton's policy ardor, not his madcap antics. But the president is usually given wide latitude in his executive and diplomatic appointments. If the nominee's views sit well with the White House that has, with very few exceptions, been enough for the Senate. The challenge to those who oppose him is considerable, another reason they are dwelling on his personality-challenged behavior and actively dredging for even more egregious examples.

So instead of focusing on the Congressional brouhaha, I'll be focusing on which floors - and the UN agencies that occupy them - Bolton (and Vice President Dick Cheney, his chief White House patron) will be seeking to ax.

Of course you remember Bolton's infamous quote from almost a decade ago, the one replayed almost daily since President George W Bush announced his nomination: "There are 38 floors to the UN building in New York. If you lost 10 of them, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

Zimbabwe's newly won membership in the controversial UN Human Rights Commission is one appetizing target. But tackling this won't go down well in sub-Saharan Africa or with the Black Caucus in the US Congress. Besides, challenging Zimbabwe opens Pandora's Box. China also has a seat and a similarly troublesome record of abuses. The Bush administration can ill afford to provoke one of America's biggest lenders, particularly as the budget deficit balloons and Washington moves to quiet simmering tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

Given Bolton's background, that's a smart call. Shortly before joining the Bush administration, Bolton lobbied for the Taiwanese government. One Asian paper described him as "an ardent friend of Taiwan", and he criticized the administration of former president Bill Clinton for leaving the island in "strategic ambivalence", uncertain of US military support should China invade the island.

Ironically, the White House might actually welcome the hype surrounding his angry outbursts. There just hasn't been much time for a review of the columns Bolton wrote for the Taipei Times.
Meanwhile, Bolton's ideological portfolio is under close scrutiny in capitals worldwide.

Last Thursday, Beijing reminded Washington that the organization has 191 members of (more or less) equal standing. Chinese Ambassador Wang Guangya balked at Secretary General Kofi Annan's proposal to reform the Human Rights Commission's electoral mechanism. If there was any doubt about Bolton's first victim at the UN, the Chinese made clear that the commission would not make an easy target.

So what's a reform-minded president and his UN ambassador to do?

The House International Relations Committee's Subcommittee on the Middle East has some ideas. In a rare glimpse of bipartisan unity, subcommittee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida, would wholeheartedly agree with New York Democrat Gary Ackerman's assessment of "three unique, specialized anti-Israel political organs" at the UN that warrant immediate reform or even termination. Ackerman made his remarks on April 20 during a hearing on "Israel's Treatment by the United Nations".

Ros-Lehtinen has called a number of UN reform-related hearings, and, as in the past, these have focused early and often on the subject of Palestinian-related (and, the reasoning goes, Israel-allergic) organizations.

But if you were to actually investigate Ackerman's allegations, you would find that the "organs" in question are rather innocuous. In fact, their titles: Division for Palestinian Rights, Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People and other Arabs in the Occupied Territory, and the UN Information Office on the Question of Palestine - certainly indicate no outright animosity towards Israel.

Unless, of course, the mere mention of "Palestine" is the actual offense.

Ackerman also challenges the UN to explain why the issue of Israel has dominated UN emergency special sessions since 1950; why the Palestinians receive the same organizational attention as Asia in the UN secretariat; and why the only country-specific UN body investigating human rights abuses targets Israel. Good questions. What he neglects to include is that the moral imperative for establishing the UN - the atrocities of World War II and, in particular, the near-extermination of European Jews - coincided with the failure to equitably resolve the "Question of Palestine". The General Assembly approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights just months after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had effectively lost the "human dignity" that document should have afforded them.

Whatever the circumstances that led Palestinians to reject the partition and leave their homes in May 1948, that tragedy has shattered several generations on both sides of the conflict. When Palestinians suffer, so too do Israelis. Those, like Ackerman - and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon - who play a "zero sum game" (Palestinian gains are Israeli losses, and vice versa) are gravely mistaken. The land just isn't expansive enough to quarantine the aspirations and frustrations of either the Palestinians or Israelis.

That won't stop a constellation of political forces - on Capitol Hill and the White House, with affiliated political operatives on the periphery - from making a run at UN institutions that were once the only voice of a stateless people.

The White House's current state of political hubris leads to "overreaching" on policy goals. Compared with Bolton's confirmation, shutting down some Palestinian-related UN functions in the name of "reform" will meet with little resistance in Republican or Democratic political circles. After Bush's stand-off with Sharon on the issue of settlement expansion, Washington may seek to assuage right-wing American Jewish fears by calling for the consolidation (at the very least) of Palestinian agencies.

UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), the refugee agency for Palestinians, is another frequent target of Congressional wrath. But recent Israeli blunders, including blatantly false allegations about UNRWA ambulances transporting militants, and determined leadership from the organization's leadership during innumerable crises, have proven difficult to overcome.

Worse still, it seems Americans are actually touched by the plight of Palestinians.

"Friends of UNRWA", a newly founded association aimed at building support for the agency in the US, owes part of its creation to unsolicited donations from Americans to the UN. After September 9/11, many were searching for legitimate financial channels to send aid to the Palestinians and, oddly enough, there are Americans who trust the UN with their money.

John Bolton isn't among them. But America never speaks with one voice. If you think otherwise, you're not listening.

Maggie Mitchell Salem is a former special assistant to US secretary of state Madeleine K Albright; a former career foreign service officer; former director of communications and outreach at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC; she now provides Middle East analysis to private and public sector clients in the US and the region, including a number of dailies in Arabic and English.

(Copyright 2005 Maggie Mitchell Salem.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

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