The Washington Times

Anyone who has spent much time around the United Nations, as I have over the past six months in conjunction with the Gingrich-Mitchell task force on U.N. reform and under the auspices of the U.S. Institute of Peace, has probably come to realize that vantage point is everything when assessing this strange and ungainly animal on Turtle Bay.

Burrow all the way in and you will find any number of international civil servants who have been working ineffectually at the United Nations for way too long but who cling with tenacity to their sinecures. But step back a few paces and you will find extraordinarily dedicated individuals who are as frustrated with the way the system performs as any outsider.

From a distance, there is Kofi Annan, the embattled U.N. secretary-general on whose watch the oil-for-food scandal blossomed, with recent revelations raising questions about how much he knew about his son’s involvement in the Swiss-based company that “monitored” supplies going into Iraq for the United Nations. From closer up, you will find a secretary-general who has done much to create a moment at which genuine reform of the United Nations may really be possible.

And from afar, there is this body, the United Nations, that is better known for failure than success, that has failed in its efforts to stop the slaughter of Muslims in Bosnia, Tutsis in Rwanda and dark-skinned Darfuris in Sudan. Upon closer-range inspection, this “U.N. failure” also looks to be the failure of member-states of the United Nations to take effective action.

The project of the bipartisan task force, co-chaired by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, was to arrive at a consensus among its 12 members on a reform agenda for the United Nations that the United States could promote through Congress and the administration. Expert staff for the task force came from six prominent think tanks, including the Hoover Institution (in which capacity I participated and for which I was compensated).

The project was the brainchild of Rep. Frank Wolf, who is chairman of the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the State Department. Mr. Wolf has long taken a keen interest in Sudan, first in the North-South conflict and more recently in Darfur, to which he traveled late last year, returning horrified at the inadequacy of the response to what Congress, in resolutions, rightly termed genocide.

The resulting report, which was released last week and will be the subject of a congressional hearing tomorrow, is an extraordinarily forward-leaning document, if I may say. Considering the diverse political leanings of the members, it would not have been implausible to expect a report that was an exercise in a terse if not surly quest for a least-common-denominator – or a breakdown in the consensus process leading to a result Mr. Wolf quite explicitly stated he wanted to avoid, namely, a majority and minority report.

There were a number of issues that eluded consensus and are not addressed in the report, most conspicuously what (if anything) to do about the composition of the Security Council: Should Japan have a permanent (or renewable) seat? Germany? India? Brazil? Likewise, the task force took no position on the withholding of a portion of U.N. dues as a way to leverage reform, an approach embraced in legislation by House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde but opposed by the Bush administration. And perhaps needless to say, John Bolton was no less controversial among task force members than he was for the Senate considering his nomination as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

But past the headlines of the moment, the task force did come together on a robust package of practical reforms in areas ranging from effective early action to prevent genocide; to the abolition of the dysfunctional Human Rights Commission and the establishment of a new human rights body, toward which democratic governments will use their collective clout to ensure that human rights malefactors are kept off and called to account; to management and personnel reform within the secretariat; to improved peacekeeping procedures, including “zero tolerance” for sexual exploitation and abuse; to adoption of a common definition of terrorism; to embracing a poverty-reduction agenda that goes beyond just transferring resources to include a strong commitment to promotion of effective governance and economic growth.

The key question comes down to this: What is the receptivity of the United Nations itself to reform? It’s clear that within the secretariat, the climate may never have been better. Whether that spirit extends to the General Assembly is a different question.

At a minimum, however, the task force report also brings clarity to the most important aspect of reform: The United States wants and should work for a more effective United Nations. But some of the most vexing problems in the world today, such as genocide, need to be addressed with or without an effective United Nations. In either case, there is no substitute for U.S. leadership.