When President Obama speaks to the United Nations this week, he'll highlight gains from his policy of engaging the world body, but critics say that will come at the expense of U.N. reform — a Bush-era priority that, at least publicly, seems to have taken a back seat.
The White House has not permanently filled a key reform-centered ambassadorship to the United Nations after Mr. Obama's first nominee, Jide Zeitlin, withdrew his name late last year amid controversy about some business dealings.
Despite evidence of mismanagement at the massive organization, critics say, the U.S. delegation has backed away from the tough watchdog role it played under President George W. Bush.
The Obama administration said its multilateralist approach has helped advance interests on scores of issues, including nuclear nonproliferation and female empowerment.
Officials say the delegation continues to air grievances on management shortcomings, but does so privately and strategically.
Veteran diplomat Joseph H. Melrose Jr. is the acting U.S. representative for management and reform.
John R. Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2005 and 2006, said the Obama administration's lack of a permanent ambassador to deal with the reform agenda sends the wrong message.
"That is the kind of signal in New York to the secretariat and other countries, basically, that the administration simply doesn't care about reform, management, budget kinds of issues," Mr. Bolton said.
Mr. Bolton, an outspoken critic of the U.N. political leadership, said the administration's "political calculus is 180 degrees in the wrong direction." He noted Mr. Obama's decision to recognize the Human Rights Council and submit a review on human rights in the U.S. Among the council's 14 member states are several nations accused of human rights violations, including Libya, Angola, and Malaysia.
"By not taking a strong reform stand, they are actually undercutting the U.N.'s credibility," he said of the U.S. delegation.
Indeed, the credibility of the 192-nation body has been marred by scandals such as the Iraq oil-for-food program and accusations of sexual misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers in Africa.
A departing U.N. investigator issued a stinging internal report this summer that accused Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of thwarting her efforts as head of the office of internal oversight services to probe mismanagement and corruption. In the memo, which was leaked to the press in July, Swedish auditor Inga-Britt Ahlenius concluded that the "secretariat now is in a process of decay" owing to Mr. Ban's leadership.
U.S. Ambassador Susan E. Rice said in a statement one week later that she was "frustrated by the recent direction of the investigations division, which must more vigorously pursue fraud and misconduct."
A U.S. official stressed that the administration's low-key public response didn't reflect the displeasure behind the scenes. Mr. Ban swiftly nominated a replacement for Ms. Ahlenius, partly because of U.S. pressure to keep the internal-oversight office as operationally independent as possible, the official said.
The official said the U.S. was instrumental, through behind-the-scenes lobbying, in getting the U.N. General Assembly to approve a new framework aimed at improving effectiveness and efficiency in global peacekeeping missions.
Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the U.N., said the shift in strategy has been a boon to American interests.
"The U.S. mission to the United Nations has been on the front lines of President Obama's new era of engagement, achieving tangible results that make Americans safer, like the passage of tough sanctions [against] Iran and North Korea, and the reinvigoration of the Non-Proliferation Treaty with a successful review conference," Mr. Ventrell said. "These gains are the result of our work to end needless American isolation, scrap outdated positions, repair frayed relationships and build a strong basis for cooperation to advance America's security."
Ms. Rice, a Clinton administration foreign-policy adviser, laid out the new approach last summer at New York University. She said the Bush administration's "stiff-arming" of the U.N. failed to advance core U.S. values and that the new delegation embraces the Millennium Development Goals, supports climate change initiatives and no longer blocks U.S. aid for health programs over concerns about abortions.
Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, said the debate boils down to two competing philosophies on how best to accomplish U.S. goals.
"I don't think there's any evidence that we've backed away from the internal-watchdog role; we've backed away from the external critic role," she said. "You just can't measure what is or isn't happening by the degree of rhetoric coming from the U.S. mission to the U.N."
Ms. Hurlburt said the Obama administration's willingness to engage at the U.N. has resulted in more cooperation on U.S. priorities, such as sanctions against North Korea and Iran, and nuclear nonproliferation.
"You could argue that for the previous administration, U.N. reform was actually more important than any of the things the U.N. actually did," she said.
Critics of the Obama approach say it's incumbent upon the U.S. to prioritize U.N. reform.
"Unfortunately, no other country in the organization really steps forward when the U.S. fails to fill that role," said Brett Schaefer, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "If you're going to be a serious body, then you have to be transparent. When we give you money, you have to allow us to find out where that money goes and how it's used. You can't have cronyism; you have to open yourself to a minimum level of due diligence."
A Republican takeover of the House or Senate could complicate the administration's U.N. strategy. Republicans have held congressional hearings or withheld funds as leverage to adopt specific U.N. reforms.
"I think the Obama administration has been wary of being overly critical of the management failings of the United Nations for fear that it will simply arm congressional critics, who might then tar the United Nations with too broad a brush," said Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "There's fairly little upside for them."
Analysts noted that the Obama administration seems to have taken a page from the Bush administration's playbook by using organizations outside the U.N. — such as the Group of 20 finance ministers and the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany — to advance certain interests.
In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "The U.N. was never intended to tackle every challenge, nor should it. So when appropriate, we are working with our partners to establish new venues and organizations to focus on specific problems."
"That's a pretty stunning remark from what I consider to be the most pro-U.N. administration in several years," Mr. Schaefer said.
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