U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched a charm offensive here on behalf of his organization Thursday, and though he won plaudits wherever he appeared, he also encountered an ingrained skepticism in Congress toward the world body.
That was evident in Annan's long meeting with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a virulent critic of the United Nations who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Helms praised Annan, who took office Jan. 1, for his willingness to meet with congressional leaders and his enthusiasm for reforming the U.N.
"When people get to know each other, problems ease up," Helms told reporters after Annan spent about 90 minutes with the committee. But Helms also said he is preparing legislation to set "benchmarks" for U.N. reform and would "reward" the organization--presumably with some of the $1.3 billion that the world body says it is owed by the U.S. in back dues--for meeting the standards.
Helms declined to detail the benchmarks, but invited U.N. staff to engage in an "ongoing dialogue" with his colleagues on the legislation.
According to a U.N. official at the closed meeting with committee members, Annan replied that he was "uncomfortable" with the idea of benchmarks but agreed to have his staff meet with Helms to discuss the plan.
The official said Annan's concern stemmed from fears that the U.N.'s other 184 members, who generally back reforms, would balk at the perception that the U.S. Congress was trying to dictate to the organization.
Annan's three-day visit to Washington ends today with meetings with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and other key members of Congress. The purpose of Annan's visit is to hear American proposals on U.N. reform and to drum up support for repayment by the U.S. of its back dues--the largest owed by a member nation.
As expected, Annan received a generous endorsement from President Clinton, with whom he met for about half an hour. The administration orchestrated the removal of Annan's predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, and believes that Annan, a Ghanaian who has spent much of his adult life in the United States and is known for his strong administrative skills and warm personality, will be a much more effective salesman for the U.N.
"We cannot expect to lead through the United Nations unless we are prepared to pay our own way and to pay what we owe as they do what they should along the path of reform," Clinton said. "As long as the United Nations does its part, we simply have to be prepared to pay our debts and to pay our dues."
Annan, as he has at all his appearances here, stressed that he is ready to pursue U.N. reform, a vague term that generally is thought to mean cutting costs, reducing bureaucracy and consolidating some programs. "The world has changed, and we have to change," he said at the White House.
Clinton encouraged Annan to meet with congressional leaders, noting that "as a practical matter . . . we won't be able to secure support in the Congress for paying the arrears unless they're convinced that reform is going forward."
Helms underlined that in remarks to reporters before his meeting with Annan. In reply to a question, he said he was not yet ready to make good on the overdue bills to the U.N. that have piled up over more than a decade. "The answer for me at this time is 'no,' " he said. "I want to talk about it. I want to see what's fair for the American people."
Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), who is Helms' counterpart in the House of Representatives, said he specified during his Wednesday meeting with Annan that the U.N. should reduce its staff, merge some programs and eliminate others, change its procurement policies to "eliminate favoritism" and adopt a "code of conduct" for employees.
Like others who met with Annan, Gilman said he was impressed with the secretary-general's credentials and comments, as well as his willingness to consult with congressional leaders. But he said that alone would not assure favorable congressional action.