America's ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, is attempting to establish a détente in Washington's age-old battle to clean up Turtle Bay. Perhaps, as the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Saud al Faisal, said in a different context, Mr. Khalilzad has been too "influenced" by the United Nations.
Unlike his predecessor, John Bolton, Mr. Khalilzad seems to see the place as a real player on the world stage, and he believes it can help America in such places as Iraq.
Nonconfrontational by nature, Mr. Khalilzad prefers behind-the-scenes maneuvering to public pressure, as can be seen in the case of the U.N. Development Program's North Korea scandal.
"We want to get to the bottom of the facts," Mr. Khalilzad said when I asked about the latest round in a letter exchange with the UNDP administrator, Kemal Dervis of Turkey.
Mr. Khalilzad acknowledged that last week he had answered a UNDP letter from late June. But he would not allow even a peek at the latest letter he has written, Mr. Khalilzad said, since it was "privileged information."
The June 28 letter from the UNDP stated there was "not a single match" between the agency's records and allegations made by one of America's ambassadors to the United Nations, Mark Wallace, about the North Korea scandal. How do I know the June letter's content? Despite being dubbed "confidential," it was leaked to the New York Times even before Mr. Khalilzad received it.
Who leaked? According to the Times, it was an "official interested in combating the wide attention that the American allegations have received" — in plain English, someone on the UNDP side. The Americans were so angry that a meeting between Messrs. Khalilzad and Dervis, scheduled for that day, was unceremoniously cancelled.
But as my brief conversation with Mr. Khalilzad shows, he now wants all sides to stop attacking each other in the press. Yet several recent newspaper articles on the North Korea scandal portrayed the UNDP favorably, indicating that unnamed sources favoring the U.N. agency's side continue to talk to reporters even as the Americans clam up.
It seems that Mr. Khalilzad, by ordering his troops to stay mum on the UNDP scandal, has brought about a unilateral disarmament. It is also instructive to remember that, no matter how smooth a diplomat may be, some feathers are immune to smoothing. A week ago, as the Bush administration announced a plan to sell weapons to Riyadh, Mr. Khalilzad told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that "Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries are not doing all they can to help us in Iraq."
Eyebrows, from Washington to the Gulf States, were immediately raised.
Asked about "verbal attacks" against the kingdom, starting with Mr. Khalilzad's, a top Saudi official said he was "astonished." Mr. Khalilzad "was in the region, and we have not heard from him any criticism against the kingdom's actions before," Mr. Faisal said Thursday. He was also eager to supply a possible motive, speculating that Mr. Khalilzad "must have been influenced by the atmosphere at the U.N."
Mr. Khalilzad later said that the source of his confrontation with the Saudis was that "people have embellished" on his interview with Mr. Blitzer. And for the record, he told me, he supports the arms deal, since our "important ally" Saudi Arabia faces threats and needs "appropriate weapons to protect itself."
It is still not clear what caused the confrontation. Did Mr. Khalilzad attempt to slow the rush to sell weapons to the Saudis? Was he playing bad cop to Secretary of State Rice's good cop? Could he have been simply unaware of how his interview would be interpreted on both sides of the Riyadh-Washington equation?
Either way, his much-justified broadside at the Saudis clearly backfired. But shying away from public attacks may not be the answer. At Turtle Bay, public exposure of scandals frequently helps, while behind-the-scenes attempts at "reform" always fail to promote any overhaul of the United Nations.
Last week, Secretary-General Ban told top Turtle Bay officials, who had gathered confidentially in a forum known as "the management group," that the bureaucracy is too slow in becoming more transparent.
But, concentrating on world diplomacy, Mr. Ban himself is not involved enough in management issues, and one reason for that is Washington: Congress and the administration, including Mr. Khalilzad, have tempered their public pressure and no one else is stepping up to push the United Nations to make much-needed internal changes.