Some Disassembly Required

A bit of creative destruction might be just what the United Nations needs.

John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, once famously mused that the U.N. headquarters building in New York could lose 10 floors and it wouldn't make a bit of difference. While this could seem like a crazy plan, in some ways, it might not go far enough. In my time reporting on the United Nations, I've encountered an alarmingly high number of offices and positions that could simply be cut without anyone noticing or caring, and a few whose disappearance might actually improve things. With U.N. headquarters currently undergoing renovation, it's worth considering a few.

Some U.N. employees are just taking up space. My publication, Inner City Press, has in recent months conducted a series of interviews with a U.N. staffer who has literally not done a single day of work for two years, but is still getting paid. The man lost his U.N. post to nepotism but lingers on the payroll, engaged in a Kafkaesque battle with the United Nations' internal justice system.

And he's not the only one. It's not uncommon for senior U.N. positions to be created solely as favors to their holders or member states. Former head of peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guhenno was, without any formal announcement, stealthily named under secretary-general for regional cooperation. Found recently strolling First Avenue in a mink-collared coat, Guhenno acknowledged that the United Nations has yet to send him a single case or piece of work -- despite pressing issues regarding the African Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (which has been conferring on Burma and North Korea's missile launch), and NATO, whose upcoming military exercises in Georgia are described as triggering Russian military moves in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Despite these issues, there is apparently no regional cooperation work for Guhenno.

Valuable space could also be saved by eliminating the offices devoted to the United Nations' production of fake news about itself. The secretary-general has an Office of the Spokesperson, which issues statements generated by his advisors on the 38th floor. Fair enough -- every large organization needs a spokesperson. But the United Nations, for some reason, has seen fit to supplement the spokesperson's office with another U.N. entity -- the U.N. News Center -- a division of its Department of Public Information that takes the press statements and produces its own one-sided elaborations of them, not unlike the pseudo news produced by North Korea's in-house news wire. For example, U.N. News's coverage of the United Nations' role in the botched December 2008 attack on the Lord's Resistance Army rebels in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo omitted all of the concerns regarding peacekeepers' negligence raised by Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders. Likewise, this year U.N. News has mentioned the shelling death of an NGO worker in Sri Lanka without naming the governmental origin of the shells or reporting on the United Nations' failure to gain -- or even publicly seek -- the release of U.N. staff from detention by the Sri Lankan government.

I have repeatedly asked U.N. officials why the United Nations produces potentially misleading coverage of itself. No answer to date has been convincing. Worse, some senior U.N. officials have developed the expectation that all press coverage should resemble the sycophantic question-and-answer charade conducted by U.N. News. Once when I interviewed and quoted then Office of Legal Affairs chief Nicolas Michel about why he accepted rent subsidies from the Swiss government while working for the United Nations, he later protested that it wasn't how he wished to be covered. He did not dispute the veracity of the quote; he only protested that news coverage -- even coverage of a violation of the U.N. Charter -- should be more positive. At a minimum, the U.N. information staff producing propaganda should be redeployed to provide information that independent media actually request from the United Nations.

The organization could learn from Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs's briefings, which dispense with the press release statements that his U.N. counterparts start with, and go straight to question-and-answer sessions. If a factual question cannot be answered at the briefing, the response is e-mailed later that day to the reporters who were there. At the United Nations, many questions simply go unanswered.

In the category of U.N. departments that don't merely waste space, but actually make the world a worse place, consider the U.N. Global Compact housed in the annex on the other side of First Avenue. Set up by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan as the United Nations' interface with private business, it has become a platform for agribusiness giant Monsanto to talk at a VIP luncheon about how it is solving the food crisis and for Microsoft's ambassador to Africa -- who just happens to be the brother of the United Nations' caretaker special adviser on Africa -- to meet with African heads of state.

Recently, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed to the Global Compact's board of directors a South Korean businessman, Chey Tae-won, who was sentenced to three years in prison in 2003 for the fraud of inflating the profits of his SK Group, which he still runs, by $1.25 billion. Global Compact director Georg Kell told Inner City Press that Chey's service on the board was fitting, as Chey has learned from his mistakes. The same, of course, could be said of Bernie Madoff. Ban's spokesperson, when asked for Ban's defense of Chey's selection, said that Kell's response was all there was to say.

This is far from the worst type of malfeasance that the United Nations routinely tolerates. It loudly claims to have zero tolerance for sexual abuse and exploitation by its peacekeepers. But, just to take one example, when 111 Sri Lankan peacekeepers in Haiti in 2007 were accused of such abuse, they were merely sent back en masse to Sri Lanka. Therefore, the Ethics Office on the 30th floor, if it's incapable of even basic levels of oversight, should also be closed or at least downsized. Better for the United Nations to be involved in fewer things but doing them well than to appear to be doing everything but in ways that have no substance.

Additional space and money can also be freed by rethinking some far-flung U.N. offices that are primarily a sop to donor states. In Japan, there is a Center for Regional Development in Nagoya that, like the U.N. Information Center in Tokyo, is plagued by financial irregularities. It remains a mystery to me what this center accomplishes. The same can be said of the Seoul-based U.N. Project Office on Governance.

If these are the parts of the United Nations that, in a more rational world, would get shuttered, there are also a couple of offices that should exist, but don't. A year and a half after the Sri Lankan peacekeepers in Haiti were returned to their home country, I asked both lead Haiti envoy Hdi Annabi and Ban's spokesperson for any indication that disciplinary action was taken by Colombo. None has been forthcoming. An Office of Discipline -- as opposed to the toothless Ethics Office -- would ensure that for serious crimes such as rape, perpetrators wouldn't escape just because they wear blue berets or helmets.

It would also be helpful to have an office for keeping track of casualties in ongoing conflicts. During the current surge of conflict in northern Sri Lanka, Ban's spokesperson told Inner City Press that the United Nations is not in the business of doing body counts, but only of helping people. But what's wrong with body counts? If the United Nations stands for civilians, it needs a more objective standard to determine the degree of concern member states should have over a given crisis. Number of human beings killed seems as good a method as any, and obtaining this information is exactly the sort of business the United Nations should be in.

It is also exactly the sort of thing that is likely to be ignored unless the United Nations can free up much-needed resources. However, under the organization's current Capital Master Plan, the size of U.N. headquarters is not to be reduced. So the edifice will continue to loom over First Avenue taking up space, while the organization it houses grows increasingly irrelevant.



Traps for George Mitchell

What Obama's Middle East peace envoy needs to know about the people who are trying to delude him.

President Obama's special peace envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, is just wrapping up his latest visit to the Middle East. It's his third trip since being appointed and this time in addition to Israel, the West Bank, and Egypt, included Saudi Arabia and North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria), with an emphasis on a comprehensive regional peace, building on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. (Mitchell has yet to visit Damascus or Beirut, something unlikely to take place until after June's parliamentary elections in Lebanon.)

In meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Mitchell continued to reiterate U.S. support for a two-state solution, although the emphasis of the visit, perhaps understandably, still seems to be the listening tour aspect, including the first meetings since Israel's new government took office.

Some reports on these latest meetings portray PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas as carrying a message of hope and peace in the face of a rejectionist Israeli premier. Others depict Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as being seized by the more urgent calling of the Iranian threat, and showing a willingness to make progress on practical issues with the Palestinians, such as the economy, while avoiding a possibly dangerous and premature effort to address the political differences -- especially given the enfeebled nature of the Palestinian counterpart.

Both views are wrong.

The sad truth is that neither leader has a meaningful strategy for creating a new equilibrium for resolving this conflict. Despite all their differences (and there are many), Netanyahu and Abbas are similar in two major respects: Both stand atop deeply dysfunctional political systems that eschew bold decision-making. And both are focused on short-term political survival, an understandable instinct and one certainly not unique to the Levant, but also woefully inadequate given the challenges faced by their respective peoples.

So, due to both circumstance and a generous dose of intentional design, Senator Mitchell's Palestinian and Israeli interlocutors are busy preparing sugar-coated traps and distractions. The Mitchell team should be well prepared to recognize the pitch of a snake- oil salesman when they hear one.

On the Israel interlocutor side, here are the main traps Mitchell should look out for:

1) The Say the Magic Words' Game. Thus far, Netanyahu is refusing to explicitly endorse the two-state formula. This is being nicely set up to become a rather large red herring, whereby diplomatic attention becomes focused on teasing out a linguistic formula to claim that Israel's premier is indeed a two-stater. Last Friday's headline in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv even suggests that Netanyahu is planning for a dramatic climb- down gesture during his first visit with U.S. President Barack Obama (now postponed from early May to possibly later in the month), during which he would declare acceptance of the two states position. What a colossal distraction and waste of time.

To paraphrase what always used to be said of former PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat --what matters are his actions, not his words. Saying the magic words is of minor import. Ending the occupation and actually delivering on a two-state solution is what should matter to the Mitchell team. The latest ruse to apparently come out of the Netanyahu-Mitchell meeting was an Israeli demand that the Palestinians first recognize Israel as a Jewish state (something that neither Egypt, nor Jordan, did in their respective peace treaties with Israel) -- a meaningless diversionary tactic.

2) It's not the economy, stupid. Netanyahu advocates focusing first on what he calls economic peace -- developing the Palestinian economy as a prerequisite for two states. Indeed, economic improvement would be welcome, and no one should oppose moves such as ending the closures, removing the 600-plus obstacles to freedom of Palestinian movement in the West Bank (that dovetail with the map of settlements and settler road use arrangements), lifting the siege on Gaza, etc. However, by now the secret may be out that developing the Palestinian economy in order to make the Palestinians a peace-loving people, while maintaining the Israeli occupation and the settlements, is precisely what's been tried for the last 15 years -- with dismal results. The Palestinians won't be bought off; this is a political conflict requiring political solutions. Economic improvements are important as a support ballast, not as a central plank.

3) You go first; no you go first. If Netanyahu is smart (as I consider him to be), then he is likely to spot a tantalizing diversionary opportunity in the Arab Peace Initiative. That plan, initiated by the Saudis and adopted by the Arab League in 2002, and reissued in 2007, calls for recognition, security, and normal relations between all the Arab states and Israel in exchange for a comprehensive agreement between Israel and its immediate neighbors, based on land-for-peace, two-states, and U.N. resolutions. It's a potential game-changer, and the Obama administration (unlike its predecessor, which ignored the initiative) is apparently keen on using the initiative as a framing principle for its peace efforts. Its beauty is in its simplicity and in its comprehensive nature: everything for everything.

The lurking danger would lie be if Netanyahu attempts to break the initiative down into gradual, sequential, bite-size mini-steps that each side would be expected to take. For instance, Israel says the words two states or returns to negotiations, or freezes settlements in return for partial normalization from the Arab side. This may sound nice, but beware: In practice, it will prove to be a recipe for an endless, fruitless, and oxygen-sucking debate on the sequencing -- you go first; no you go first -- reminiscent of an Alphonse and Gaston routine, minus the exaggerated politeness.

All this even before Netanyahu gets out his bag of Iran party tricks and distractions. So much for the Israeli side. On to the Palestinians, who talk a good game and often sound eminently reasonable, but are equally infatuated with distraction promotion. (Here, it's important to remember that Mitchell's interlocutor is not the Palestinians; it is a political leadership with political calculations and a well-developed fear of change.) So what cards might they be expected to play?

1) Cheering on a fight. Judging by reports from Friday's meetings, the focus in Ramallah right now seems to be egging on a fight between Israel and America. Such a spat would undoubtedly create a fleeting, feel-good factor, but then what? While it's nice to sound good on CNNi, to play the blame game, and to appear closer to Washington's talking points, winning the media war is hardly a strategy for national liberation.

If Israel and America are at some point to publicly disagree, then it should be about something meaningful, such as an actual plan for implementing two states, rather than, for instance, over terminology or a dozen out of more than 600 obstacles to Palestinian freedom of movement. Often, the PLO leadership seems interested in spectacle for its own sake rather than real results. Bottom line: the U.S.-Israeli spat is a distraction.

2) Cross-dressing on preconditions. Ever since the first Palestinian national unity government was formed in 2007, bringing together the electorally victorious Hamas, and the ousted Fatah, Israel, America and the Quartet demanded that any Palestinian government meet three preconditions (recognize Israel, accept past agreements, and renounce terrorism). Since the Netanyahu government was sworn in, the PLO leadership has adopted this same mantra: In order for negotiations to continue, the Israeli government must accept two states, abide by previous agreements, and freeze settlements.

Preconditions were a mistake when applied to the Palestinians, and will be equally mistaken if applied to the Israelis. (And in fact, this is much more about domestic Palestinian politics than Israel-Palestinian affairs and it's being used by Fatah in its struggle with Hamas.) Most troubling, this approach could hamper an especially urgent issue: reopening Gaza and allowing a regular flow of goods and materials, including those desperately needed for reconstruction following Israel's Operation Cast Lead.

3) Nostalgia for Bush and Annapolis. Palestinian leaders never had very many good things to say about the Bush administration, so it's ironic that they are advocating a return and adherence to the Roadmap and the Annapolis process. Again, don't be fooled. The latter is little more than a pushback against the Israeli government's apparent rejection of Annapolis as explicitly stated by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Plus, as with so much of the Bush legacy in the Middle East, Annapolis was a failure and structurally flawed, relying on bilateral negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships with no U.S. presence, and making Palestinian performance a prerequisite for ending the occupation.

Just as there have been policy reviews and significant course corrections on Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, the Mitchell team should apply the same principle of a rethink on the Israeli-Arab track. The United States should not be maneuvered back to the flawed Annapolis design, whether in response to a Palestinian bear hug or an Israeli pushback.

Indeed, there seems little value then in recycling that approach. A moment has presented itself where there is a new U.S. administration, a new Israeli government, and a chance to devise a new way of finally achieving -- and not just talking about - two states living side by side in security and dignity. These new circumstances can be seen more as an opportunity than a crisis. The Mitchell team would do well to avoid the distractions and traps on offer, whether from Israelis or Palestinians, and take its time in devising an American plan that delivers on the American interest in resolving the conflict. It's time for the United States to step up.