15 September 2007

An announcement that newly-appointed U.N. envoy to Iraq Staffan Demistura had "Middle East experience" drew chuckles from those who knew the UNICEF Greeting Cards Meeter Greeter. Apart from a few profuse welcome and farewell words in local Egyptian which he had picked up from his UNHCR days, the Italian/Swede, Swede/Italian who acquired the habit of bowing profusely and frequently may be -- after all -- the right person for the required task these days.

That "experience" of Ban Ki-Moon's new envoy to Iraq was initially limited to the then famous, now infamous, visit by Secretary General Kofi Annan to Baghdad in the spring of 1998 -- you know, the one where "we could do business with Saddam Hussein" was coined following a fresh intake of a long Cahiba.

A cautious Annan who had stopped in Paris to coordinate with President Chirac wanted to ensure that political handicaps were cleared before his arrival in Baghdad. A sticking point was the potential search of the Presidential Palaces. Would they be hiding some weapons of mass destruction? Would inspectors be allowed?

So, a couple of officers were dispatched to clear the deck: Shashi Tharoor (D-1), then Special Assistant to Annan and -- who else? -- Staffan Demistura who had been recently appointed by Annan as Director of the U.N. Information Centre in Rome. Both went through the motions of measuring the drapes and swiftly -- within the course of a day -- gave Saddam Hussein's widespread residences a clean bill of health. It just happened immediately thereafter that both Tharoor and Demistura got speedy promotions -- to USG and ASG respectively.

Just as a brief background, when newly-elected Secretary General agreed to bring back our beloved Nadia Younes to Headquarters as a D-2, Demistura angled for her vacant post in Rome, profusely bowing his way until he sought an opportunity as an Assistant Secretary General post as Special Representative in South Lebanon. To be sure, he accommodated Chef de Cabinet Iqbal Riza in evading staff rules by appointing his son Imran with him in Beirut as a P-5 post. That case became a rallying cry for angry U.N. staff as they took an unprecedented vote of censure, condemning the administration of the only Secretary General who had risen from their ranks.

In Beirut, Inspecteur "Clouseaux" Demistura displayed an admirable passion for photo opportunities. As he shared that passion with Lebanese politicians, all went well. His only venture into diplomatic interventions was when he made a visit to Israel and returned to announce that he had received assurances that IDF airplanes would no more violate Lebanese airspace -- a usual Israeli occurrence and habitual Lebanese complaint. By the time the President and government welcomed that assurance, Israeli planes showed up again -- with vengeance -- at a location not far from the Presidential Palace. Down the drain went the credibility of Demistura, the negotiator.

Now Mr. Ban has discovered his "new" man in Baghdad -- an "old" hand who had been granted a more senior post in Turin to evade retirement age. Whether Riza's son would join him or not does not really matter -- in fact, Imran -- and his father -- could prove very helpful in the current regional circumstances. Whether the Italian membership in the Security Council helped in the choice or not, again does not really matter.

What really matters is delivering results. Let's see whether it is continuity with change or continuity with farce. Meanwhile, let's wish the tormented Iraqi people good luck.