15 May 2007

Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon seems to be doing fairly well in the Middle East. During three visits in five months he at least avoided falling into pitfalls while gaining the image of an intelligent, diligent, friendly, keen and amenable visitor. He played his cards very well at the Arab Summit in Saudi Arabia, making his position clear and allowing for inter-Arab contacts on Arab-Israeli, Darfur, Syrian, Lebanese questions before wisely dropping in again. His visit to Syria was necessary to gage the readiness of the regions to deal with U.N.-related issues -- he explored and prodded without unduly breaking down windows of opportunity. The way Larsen's unwelcome presence was dealt with reflected a desire on both sides to maintain the momentum. During the third visit, to Sharm El-Shaik, over the Iraq Compact, Mr. Ban co-presided astutely and graciously, knowing the current limits to a U.N. role and the sensitivity of the League of Arab States on events in Baghdad.

In brief, the Secretary General's three-pronged initial introduction to the region has been positive. So was the visit of U.N. Legal Counsel Nicolas Michel to review the status of the tribunal to try those responsible for assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Although there was no specific progress to report, Mr. Nicolas' approach, his professional competence, and his obvious understanding of Lebanese intricacies (being Swiss helps) gave him an air of credibility; all parties he met, despite their emotionally political differences, appreciated, even enjoyed his dialogue. No doubt the positive role of the outstanding Lebanese Minister of Justice Charles Rizk helped; a lunch he arranged with Ambassadors of the five permanent members in Beirut allowed the U.N. Legal Council to connect the dots.

The role of Special Representative Geir Pedersen has been welcome thus far by all parties; his outreach efforts are appreciated, his ready smile welcome.

What is puzzling, however, is that despite the generally good impression Mr. Ban has made, there is an attempt to undercut him in some Arab and particularly some Lebanese media. The source is most likely in New York, or someone in the Gulf region, not Beirut.

About a week before Alvaro de Soto left his post, there was a planted story unfairly and inaccurately describing him as being pro-Israeli / anti-Arab, yet signaling that the situation will improve when someone else -- whose name was not mentioned -- gets to take over. A follow-up article openly delved into internal disputes within Secretariat senior officials dealing with the Middle East, siding with some and disparaging others. Secretary General Ban himself was described as "having no experience in Middle East Files and has already committed many mistakes" (perhaps for not taking a certain Press officer to Damascus?!). The same planted story also took a swipe at Pedersen "whose position is now under doubt"!

On Mr. Ban, it is planted that his office was by now on several occasions been obliged to deny or clarify statements attributed to him on the Middle East and that "some diplomats leave their meetings with him unclear on the outcome." Additionally, Mr. Ban was "stubborn in handling administrative files" (whatever that means but it may be a clue!). "He has dispersed the team accumulated by his predecessor Kofi Annan and is about to make changes amongst his immediate assistants" (who might those be?). Mr. Ban, accordingly, "is not decisive regarding senior officials who handled sensitive M.E. files" (again, who do they mean?). There was also a claim that a cartologist "previously selected by Mr. Annan" to study the status of Chabaa Farms concluded that it was Lebanese but that Mr. Ban was "too weak" to include that in his report to the Security Council on the implementation of resolution 1701. That "weakness" was reflected also by his Special Representative in Lebanon.

We don't know whether there is someone in New York following Arab media (there used to be sometime ago); whether the Spokesman's Office reviews such stuff and what is done about it; or whether those who are supposed to send feedback would include such material. What we know is that it is very unusual to plug stories of that nature without an inspirational hint from someone with influence and connections with a U.N. press officer, not necessarily in Beirut. It's a network. You've got to know its members. Those in New York supposed to handle Arab media are so self-satisfied with their ignorant bliss that they would hardly take action. The competence -- and loyalty -- of some of those in the Arab region needs to be seriously evaluated. Experience has shown that if a problem in the field was not immediately handled, it will eventually grow up to become a real headache for Headquarters.