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Lost in Washington? The Disappearing Director-General of UNESCO

I know, I know -- the news of the hour is UN Ambassador Susan Rice. But there's plenty of interesting commentary right now about Rice (including her own op-ed in the The Washington Post, where, under the headline "Why I Was Right to Withdraw," she argues that it shouldn't be about her). Let us move for a moment to one of the sideshows, where a small mystery all its own is taking shape -- involving Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

UNESCO has been in an odd spot since its member states, in gleeful defiance of the official U.S. position, voted last year to admit the Palestinian Authority to full membership. This act, with which UNESCO greatly exceeded its brief as a UN agency by trying to unilaterally confer statehood on the Palestinians, resulted in UNESCO losing its U.S. funding, which was running about $78 million per year, or more than 22% of UNESCO's core budget. The funding cut was not the preferred tactic of the Obama administration, which would like to continue bankrolling UNESCO regardless. Rather, the block of U.S. government money is required by U.S. laws, which forbid contributing to any part of the UN that tries to confer statehood on any group not fully equipped with the attributes of a state.

The head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, didn't mind UNESCO admitting the Palestinians, but she was not at all pleased to have UNESCO lose more than $78 million per year in U.S. lucre. So, like many people who want money from Washington, she has been making more trips to Washington than one might otherwise suppose necessary. She has also dispatched an American UNESCO staffer, George Papagiannis, a former congressional aide to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, to serve as her liaison in Washington (well, officially he's based in New York, but Washington is where he keeps turning up). UNESCO's basic approach is that UNESCO wants American taxpayers' money; but UNESCO is not about to reverse its admission of the Palestinian Authority. UNESCO would prefer to see America reverse its own laws. Will there perhaps be a waiver authority for President Obama slipped into some big spending bill? More on how this is now playing out in my column today at National Review Online on "Game Plan for the UNESCO Shakedown."

Given that Bokova, in interviews and speeches, has been pushing for the resumption of U.S. funding for UNESCO (and, by implication, U.S. dismissal of its own laws), it seems worth keeping an eye out for her activities when she visits Washington. For her previous trips (at least those I'm aware of), it wasn't that hard. Her travels to Washington last December, and again in March, were high profile. There were press releases and interviews and banquet speeches open to the press. For her September visit, there was a lot less fanfare, but she did appear in a photo at Washington's Kennedy Center.

But this week, with a fresh push apparently in the works for the U.S. to resume funding UNESCO, Bokova embarked for Washington -- and simply dropped off the public grid. UNESCO has confirmed that she is in Washington as I write this, but no one could (or would) say for quite how long, or where, or when she might be seeing whom. The only advance notice of her trip came not from UNESCO, but via the web site of a cultural organization called US/ICOMOS, (the U.S. National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites), which was advertising a $500-per-plate Benefit Gala of the 40th Anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, to be held December 12 in Washington, cocktails at 6:30 PM, dinner at 7:30 PM, with Bokova as guest of honor. I phoned before the event, and was told by the director of US/ICOMOS that the dinner was sold out, and closed to the press -- and yes, indeed, Irina Bokova would be attending.

But on the UNESCO web site, I could find no mention of the director-general's plans for this gala dinner in Washington on Dec. 12. There was plenty about her activities in Paris, her trip last month to Cuba, and so on. But nothing about her plans to visit Washington. No press release, no blurb. Zip.

I sent a query to the UNESCO press office in Paris, asking such routine questions as how long the director-general would be in Washington, when she was planning to arrive and depart, and whether she was planning any other events, such as meetings with lawmakers.

It took UNESCO's Paris press office four days, during which I twice re-sent my questions, to provide an answer of sorts. The main purpose of her trip, they said, was the US/ICOMOS dinner on Dec. 12, and she had also scheduled meetings with the UN Foundation, the State Department, and "Other Institutes and foundations." In semi-answer to my question about whether Bokova would be meeting with U.S. legislators or congressional staff, they said only that she was "exploring a range of meetings on Capitol Hill," but no specifics were provided because "The schedule has not been finalized." They did not say when Bokova would depart Washington, but they did mention that during her visit to the U.S. she would be attending the annual dinner of the UN Correspondents' Association -- which is held in New York, and scheduled this year for Dec. 19.

So, what business might UNESCO's director-general be conducting, in Washington or beyond, between Dec. 12 and Dec. 19? Evidently at least some of it entailed a fair amount of preparatory work in Washington. Earlier this week, I emailed a question to UNESCO staffer Papagiannis, who serves as  her "liaison" in Washington, and got the reply that he was too busy ducking in and out of meetings to tell me anything.