Wednesday, September 09, 2009

When the Enemy Attacks....

A life under fire for Ban Ki-moon
By Ian Williams

Asia Times September 10th

WASHINGTON - United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon has been under attack in the Anglo-American press. This is perhaps why, despite a recent global poll [1] showing him to be the second-most popular political figure in the world after President Barack Obama, his ratings are not so glowing in the United States and Britain.

In August, the leak of a negative assessment from Norwegian deputy ambassador to the UN, Mona Juul, seemed to suggest that the criticism extended beyond the Anglo-Saxon neo-liberal consensus, but its effect was rather countered by a previous Norwegian invitation to the secretary general. Norway provided the UN's first secretary general, Trygve Lie, and helped organize Ban

Ki-Moon's visit to the North Pole last week to see the effects of climate change.

The Norwegian leak is puzzling. Unsourced, relying on gossip and clippings from conservative press outlets, the "highly confidential" report [2] to the Norwegian Foreign Ministry was relentlessly negative, calling Ban "spineless and charmless".

However, for UN insiders, its effect was somewhat mitigated by the recent, unsuccessful but active interest of its author, Juul, in an assistant secretary general's job under the same direly assessed Ban. That her husband, Terje Rod-Larsen's expectations of a UN position had also been allegedly frustrated by Ban did not add to her credibility.

Half-way through Ban's first term there is indeed room for a critical assessment of the former South Korean foreign minister, but the sources cited by Juul in her report bear similar examination of their motivation. For many of them, like Rupert Murdoch's London Times or the National Interest's Jacob Heibrunn - who wrote a blistering assault on Ban in Foreign Policy magazine (which in fact looked like the main reference for Juul's report) - the UN is always wrong.

Indeed, their attacks could suggest that Ban has in fact outgrown the do-nothing role that former US envoy to the UN John Bolton allegedly scripted for him on his election. This has led to him joining the long line of UN secretaries general to be excoriated by the conservative press for not following orders.

There are many odious comparisons made with former secretary general Kofi Annan, whose charisma is contrasted with Ban's. In fact, to some observers, Annan was not "charismatic" in the real sense of the word. His soft-spoken oratory style was not aimed at firing up the masses, despite the intensive efforts from his team. Rather he was "numinous". A charismatic leader can incite people to run over a cliff: Annan's demeanor reassured people that he would never allow that to happen. He exuded trust. And while he stood by his principles, he was no more forward in seeking out gratuitous enemies than Ban is.

One may remember that Annan drew down furious conservative fire for suggesting, under pressure from a BBC interviewer, that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was illegal (as did, incidentally, the late senator Ted Kennedy). But he had not exactly used the bully pulpit on which he stood to push that view.

Many analysts beleive Ban is most certainly not "charmless and spineless". He is remarkably affable, charming and has shown strong attachment to principle - which may be one reason for the neo-liberal disaffection. He went on the hustings to campaign for the seat and while running explicitly avowed support for the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) concept - a new international doctrine on the responsibility of sovereign states and the international community to protect civilians from mass atrocity crimes - and the International Criminal Court. Neither of these moves were calculated to win the affections of president George W Bush or Bolton, who were in office at the time - nor indeed of China. He has maintained those stands, and recently steered the R2P concept away from the shipwreck planned for it by the Nicaraguan president of the General Assembly.

Since taking office, he has made climate change his pet issue - once again not music to the ears of his original Republican nominators, nor the Chinese, and he has not eschewed berating the powers for not taking it seriously.

It was hardly spineless to chide the US for being a "deadbeat" over its UN dues arrears, as he did this year, and even if there is no direct causal relationship, he cannot be accused of sabotaging diplomatic efforts. The US is now paying up. In London, he was one of the major players in the successful incorporation of the needs of the developing world into the global stimulus response.

And just as Annan excited obloquy for going to Baghdad to avert a war, Ban is now under fire for going to Myanmar to persuade the junta to see sense. The recent Western style of what passes for leadership is that politicians will not take any steps until they are assured of success. Historically, this is not very effective. Ban went to Myanmar with the support of the UN Security Council, and returned to its applause. He had after all successfully pressed the murderously myopic junta into accepting foreign assistance after Typhoon Nargis in 2008. It is surely better to risk his reputation by trying than by keeping out in case it failed.

Where he has shown the most rapid learning curve has been on the Middle East. As South Korean foreign minister, surrounded by Japan, Russia, China and the US, not to mention North Korea, it is understandable that the issue was not top of his agenda. Under those circumstances, it is not totally remarkable that his initial stands took the Israeli point of view. Ironically, he deepened and consummated the purge of "Arabists" at UN headquarters who upheld UN resolutions, which Rod-Larsen had attempted under Kofi Annan.

However, even without them, exposure to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and reality on the ground seems to have brought him a long way towards the UN view on the issue. Although his burying of the recent report he had commissioned on Israeli actions in Gaza is part of a long secretariat tradition of protecting Israel and shows that he still has some way to go.

There are valid criticisms of Ban's administration, but in fact he has shown other signs of learning from experience. Part of the problem is indeed cultural. He suffers in the West from his "Confucian" background, which avoids public, and thus newsworthy, confrontations. However, aides and others report that in closed rooms with leaders he can be very forthright. One might think that "kick and tell" was not a desirable trait in the world's arch-diplomat, but the Western press differ. Despite his affability and accessibility to the media, Ban's refusal to deliver controversy or sound bites appears like evasiveness to the Western media.

Annan achieved great amplification by allowing his team to speak freely and occasionally controversially on major issues. One only has to think of former deputy secretary general Mark Malloch Brown's eminently reportable speeches and comments or former under secretary general Shashi Tharoor's ubiquity in the media. Disownable if they went too far, their media presence enhanced Annan's.

However, Ban's uncollegial administrative style and, in some cases inept appointments, have muffled his genuine achievements. All secretary general's have to be cliquish: their senior officials are foisted upon them by the permanent five (P5) and by major donors and under the circumstances it is remarkable how independent of their sponsors many of them are.

As a result, at the UN kitchen, cabinets are the name of the game. In Ban's case, it is a very small, Korean kitchen. He has appointed some very able senior officers who should really be encouraged to speak out more. He certainly needs to reassure UN staff that "thought-crime" will not result in the termination of the short-term contracts on which far too many of them are working - and contrarily, like all previous incumbents he needs to show that long-term contracts for incompetents can and will be terminated.

That a South Korean should be so popular in Japan and China indicates some serious diplomatic talents, as does his public espousal of views that irritate the permanent members on whom his second term depends.

Somehow, he has to combine the style that allows him to do that with the presence that moves the hearts and minds of other publics. But if the neo-liberals and unilateralists in the English language press attack him, it is worth considering that he may well be moving in the right direction.

1. Obama Rockets to Top of Poll on Global Leaders, June 29, 2009.
2. Norwegian UN diplomat slams Ban Ki-moon Foreign Policy, August 21, 2009.

Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, (Nation Books, New York).

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