"One has to be careful," said U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan earlier this month, "not to confuse the U.N. with the U.S." If the Secretary General had taken his own advice, then maybe his Brazilian subordinate, Vieira de Mello, might not have been so summarily blown to pieces in Baghdad two days earlier.

            Whichever group sent that truck bomb on its way had made the accurate assessment that de Mello and his boss Annan were so brazen in allowing the United Nations to play a fig leaf role in the U.S. occupation of Iraq that drastic action was necessary to slow down the process. So the U.N. man handpicked by the White House paid with his life.

            To get a sense of how swift has been the conversion of the United Nations into after-sales service provider for the world's prime power, just go back to 1996, when the United States finally decided that Annan's predecessor as U.N. Secretary General, Boutros Boutros Ghali, had to go.

            In a curious foreshadowing of Annan's plaintive remark cited above, Boutros-Ghali told Clinton's top foreign policy executives, "Please allow me from time to time to differ publicly from U.S. policy." And unlike Annan, he duly did so, harshly contrasting western concern for Bosnia, whose conflict he described as "a war of the rich" with its indifference to the genocide in Rwanda and to horrifying conditions throughout the third world. Then, in April 1996, he went altogether too far, when he insisted on publication of the findings of the U.N. inquiry, which implicated Israel in the killing of some hundred civilians who had taken refuge in a United Nations camp in Kanaa in south Lebanon.

            In a minority of one on the Security Council, the United States insisted on exercising its veto of a second term for Boutros-Ghali. James Rubin, erstwhile State Department spokesman, wrote his epitaph in the Financial Times: Boutros-Ghali was "unable to understand the important of cooperation with the world's first power."

            Of course even in the U.N.'s braver days, there were always the realities of power to be acknowledged, but U.N. Secretaries General such as Dag Hammarskjold and U Than, were men of independent stature. These days, U.N. functionaries such as Annan and the late De Mello, know full well that their careers depend on patronage. De Mello was a bureaucrat, never an elected politician, advancing up the ladder as a U.S. favorite. He was instrumental in establishing the U.N. protectorate system in Kosovo. Then he was the beneficiary of an elaborate and instructive maneuver, in which the United States was eager to rid itself of the fractious Jose Mauricio Bustani, another Brazilian, from his post as head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Chemical Weapons Convention's implementing organization. The U.S. saw Bustani, assertive of U.N. independence, as an obstruction to its Iraq policy. Brazil was informed that if it supported the ouster of Bustani, it would be rewarded with U.S. backing for De Mello's elevation to the post of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, replacing another object of U.S. disfavor, Mary Robinson.

            De Mello was duly appointed. Then, earlier this year, the imperial finger crooked an urgent summons for De Mello to come to Washington for an inspection by Condoleezza Rice. De Mello made all the right noises and thus signed his death warrant. Desperate for U.N. cover in Iraq, the Bush White House pressured Annan to appoint De Mello as U.N. Special Envoy to Iraq.

            De Mello installed himself in Baghdad and busied himself, in cooperation with the U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer, cobbling together a puppet Governing Council of Iraqis, serving at the pleasure of the Coalition Provisional Authority. It was formed on July 13. Nine days later, De Mello was at the United Nations in New York, proclaiming with a straight face that "we now have a formal body of senior and distinguished Iraqi counterparts, with credibility and authority, with whom we can chart the way forward . we now enter a new stage that succeeds the disorienting power vacuum that followed the fall of the previous regime."

            Though it did not formally recognize the Governing Council, the U.N. Security Council commended this achievement. The Financial Times editorialized on August 19: "America friends, such as India, Turkey, Pakistan and even France, which opposed the war, should stand ready to help. But they need U.N. cover." In Baghdad, the next day, in the form of the truck bomb, came an answer. Two days later, Kofi Annan counseled on the dangers of confusing the U.N. with the U.S. But what else is any realist to do? At least Boutros-Ghali went down fighting, which is more than can be said for his successor.

            Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.