While pondering a U.N. role in post-war Iraq, whether "important" or "effective" or otherwise, the appointment of a Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on this issue was announced.

Immediately thereafter, a communique clarified that the experienced and decent Rafeeuddin Ahmed will not be making proposals, nor dealing substantively with the Security Council, nor traveling anywhere. Within days, word went round that a Special Representative was being groomed. Mr. Ahmad and Mr. Riza were exploring the chances of a former Foreign Minister of Thailand, described as a "non-Arab muslim from Asia." Key governments were given only one option hinting that the name was acceptable (or even "supported") by the Arab countries. It did not work. A Tunisian was briefly mentioned. Kamel Morjane had served as Special Representative in the Congo (did you say Congo?), but did not gather enough support despite his friendships within the peacekeeping department; the Secretary-General reportedly knows him well. An Arab whose name was rarely mentioned apparently turned it down. Lakhdar Brahimi would neither confirm nor deny consultations with friends and colleagues.

Sergio Vieira de Millo was the last person the clique around the Secretary-General wanted to see as Special Rep. He has an appealing charisma, and -- as proven in Kosovo and East Timor -- has a canny talent to handle the media in several languages. More to the point, he could perform in such a manner that would project his name as a possible contender for the post of Secretary- General. Reports that he was highly appreciated by Dr. Condoleezza Rice added to speculation that the assignment may be one small step for the U.N. and one large step for Sergio. However, the announcement of his appointment indicated a time frame: a six month mandate. When the observant Maggie Farley of the Los Angeles Times asked the Secretary-General whether he had someone else in mind after that, he gently demurred. Answering Al Jazeera correspondent who wondered why not someone from the vast Arab or muslimm world, Annan smiled, suggesting to wait and see. As the newly appointed Special Rep made his first visit to Baghdad, a source reported the arrival of former Lebanese Minister of culture Ghassan Salameh to join him as a Special Advisor. Dr. Salameh is a distinguished professor at the University of Paris and a prominent participant in worldwide seminars on dialogue among civilization. But what is his role? Is he there to stay or possibly take over? He is an excellent choice. So is Ahmad Fawzi, selected as Spokesman -- but again, for one month only.

What is going on? Is it unintended confusion, chronic indecision, or a very cautious approach? Whatever it is, the performance of the U.N. is being watched. Spreading an air of an ad hoc role may be convenient internal politics, but unless a specific role emerges with a specific focus, the general impression would be that the U.N. Secretariat is just tugging along, the only policy being "whatever is allowed" or more briefly the policy of "whatever." And as usual, some self-important characters will continue to blunder with impunity while the U.N. -- and its image -- pays the price.