Union Tribune

March 30, 2003

Mexican ambassador to U.N. beats rumors
Aguilar, said to be target of U.S. ire, will head council


WASHINGTON – Mexico's ambassador to the United Nations will take over the Security Council's rotating presidency Tuesday after surviving – and allegedly encouraging – rumors that he was about to be fired at the request of the United States.

Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez quashed the rumors this week. He hailed Ambassador Adolfo Aguilar Zinser as a man of "exceptional competence" and said the government wanted to "kill this topic of his supposed departure from the United Nations."

The story of Aguilar's alleged brush with banishment was big news in Mexico last week because of the widespread impression there that a ham-handed U.S. government often tries to trample Mexican sovereignty and dictate Mexican decisions.

Derbez's declaration put an end to a story that had caught fire with a Spanish newspaper report sympathetic to Aguilar. It gained urgency with word that President Bush had told President Vicente Fox in October of U.S. "problems" with Mexico's man at the United Nations.

The Aguilar melodrama developed against a clouded political background in which Mexico braced for possible recriminations from the United States for opposition to a Security Council resolution that would have authorized the war on Iraq despite heavy lobbying from the State Department and Bush himself. Mexican officials declared that Aguilar's work on the matter conformed strictly to Fox's instructions.

At the State Department, where Aguilar is widely regarded as a principled but prickly man with a highly personalized agenda, the story of his alleged extraction from Washington's cross hairs left some diplomats claiming it was nonsense.

"We're smart enough to know that the easiest way to lock the guy in is to ask that he be removed," one diplomat said. "That's why you'd suspect that the source of this story is people close to him."

Mexican political analyst Raymundo Riva Palacios agreed. He wrote in the Mexican newspaper El Universal that Aguilar had indeed been on the verge of being sacked – but because of incompetence in New York, not because of pressure from Washington.

Riva said Aguilar had duped the reporter for the Spanish newspaper El País, who wrote that Aguilar "is aware that the United States and his enemies want to sack him." The El País story ended with a dramatic quote from an unnamed diplomatic source saying Aguilar "does not believe that President Fox is going to abandon him."

Aguilar's supporters last week sought to bolster their case of a Washington conspiracy by pointing to Bush's one-sentence expression of frustration with Aguilar.

"We are having problems with your ambassador at the U.N.," Bush told Fox as the two men met at an international summit in Los Cabos, where the Iraq crisis overshadowed the planned economic agenda. The United States at the time was pushing for a resolution – ultimately passed in modified form – to pressure Iraq to disarm.

A previously unreleased transcript of Bush's comment shows that it came as he explained why he could not accept Fox's invitation to visit Mexico in 2003.

According to the transcript, Bush said: "We may be at war with Iraq. We're at the U.N. for a reason. We'll find out if the U.N. is effective. For 11 years Saddam has been heaping scorn on the U.N., and he's getting close to having nuclear weapons. We are having problems with your ambassador at the U.N."

Bush made no further mention of Aguilar, moving on to talk about building a coalition to fight Iraq if it did not disarm. Nor did Fox respond to Bush's comment.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher could muster no enthusiasm for Derbez's announcement that Aguilar would remain in New York.

"We don't comment on other people's ambassadors." Boucher said tersely. "They have to be happy with them. If they're happy with them, then that's the ambassador."

In an addendum that gained credibility this week even in Mexico, Boucher said, "The U.S. government doesn't decide who other people appoint to positions like this."

Aguilar is to serve as Security Council president for the next month.