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Insider : Iraqi Crisis Has Forced U.S. to Take a New Look at U.N. : And Washington likes what it sees. Credit Ambassador Thomas Pickering with bringing about the sea-change in American policy.

October 02, 1990|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNITED NATIONS — After years of sometimes scornful confrontation between the United States and the United Nations, the U.N. system suddenly has become the cornerstone of Washington's strategy for the economic and political isolation of Iraq.

The U.N. Security Council, long regarded as an irrelevant talk-shop by U.S. policy-makers, has approved a growing list of resolutions imposing ever-tighter sanctions to punish Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for his invasion and annexation of Kuwait.

The sea-change in U.S. relations with the United Nations was dictated mainly by events, not diplomacy. But insiders both in Washington and at U.N. headquarters here in New York give a substantial portion of the credit to the chief U.S. delegate, Thomas R. Pickering, a veteran diplomat who has mastered the arcane rituals of the world organization and has replaced confrontation with cooperation.

Pickering, whose career in the State Department goes back to 1959, was the first ambassador-level appointment made (informally) by then-President-elect Bush in December, 1988. At the time, the selection of a career diplomat was seen as a morale-building gesture, designed to bolster the professional Foreign Service officers (who ultimately would find very few of their numbers among Bush's other early diplomatic nominations).

Pickering is only the third career diplomat to head the U.S. Mission during the United Nations' 45-year history. Unlike some of his predecessors--including Bush, who held the post during the Nixon Administration--Pickering has no political constituency and no political ambitions of his own.

Seymour Finger, director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the City University of New York, initially thought that was a mistake. An expert on the U.N. system going back to the days of its founding, Finger has long believed that the United States should pick a recognized political leader to represent it at the world organization.

Finger has changed his mind about Pickering and has become one of his most avid boosters.

"He is the right man for the job now," Finger says.

A European diplomat who has watched Pickering closely in the Security Council says the U.S. representative has impressed his colleagues with his competence and his command of the system. "Maybe history will say that the fact that Pickering was the representative during this crisis was a very good thing," he muses.

Unlike most of his recent predecessors, Pickering has made the United Nations his full-time occupation, spending the bulk of his time here in New York. He does not have the seat at the Cabinet table in Washington upon which most of his predecessors insisted. And he gave up the prestigious office suite at the State Department that had been assigned to the U.N. representative.

Edward Luck, president of the United Nations Assn. of the United States, says Pickering "brings a real intellectual commitment" to the job. "He is really fascinated with the way multilateral diplomacy works. He realizes he is here at an important point in history and that the potential for the U.N. could be enormous in the future.

"What happens here today, and the way he carries out his job, will have a great impact on that future," Luck adds. "He realizes that just to sit here playing his role is enough. He doesn't have to be preaching to the masses. If he had a higher public profile, that would tend to undermine his ability to conduct patient negotiations."

"I think he has done a superb job," Luck says. "I don't say that about many people in political life. In a quiet and unassuming way, he has worked very hard to build up a broad international coalition behind the principles the United States is trying to uphold in the (Persian) Gulf."

Indeed, Pickering's mastery of inside-U.N. politics is a bold contrast to the confrontational style exhibited by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick when she was the Ronald Reagan Administration's delegate to the United Nations.

Kirkpatrick used to publish lists showing how seldom certain countries supported the U.S. position in U.N. votes. And when some Third World delegates threatened to shift the U.N. headquarters to another country, one of Kirkpatrick's assistants volunteered to go down to the New York waterfront to see the U.N. delegates off.

"Jeane Kirkpatrick clearly started out with an Administration that was very skeptical of the U.N.," Luck says. "She saw this as a political forum and one in which we had not been getting a fair shake. She had some reason to have those concerns.

"We are now in an era where we realize we cannot be the world's policeman all on our own," he continues. "It is a very different kind of framework. We are looking for the U.N. to be successful, and we don't feel nearly so threatened by it."

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