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Kofi's world of hurt

Political realities kept the secretary-general from moving heaven and Earth, but he shined in the role of secular pope.

September 17, 2006|James Traub | James Traub's latest book, "The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the U.N. in the Era of American World Power," will be published in October.

THE CAREER of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which will come to an end Dec. 31 with the completion of his second five-year term, has been bookended by dramatic peacemaking trips to the Middle East.

During the first, in February 1998, he headed off an impending U.S. bombing attack on Iraq by persuading Saddam Hussein to permit U.N. weapons inspectors to return to the country. The Daniel-in-the-lions'-den imagery of that meeting cemented his budding reputation as a moral hero. Last month, the 68-year-old Ghanaian returned from a lightning tour of Middle Eastern states with an agreement to lift Israel's suffocating embargo of Lebanon and reassurances about the brittle cease-fire established by a Security Council resolution.

This is the stuff of diplomatic melodrama -- save that the props often turn out to be made of papier-mache. The Baghdad entente of 1998 began to fall apart soon after Annan returned to New York, and by December, British and American warplanes were striking targets in Iraq during four nights of heavy bombardment. As for the recent cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, it could give way at any moment because the United Nations lacks the mandate and the capability to disarm the Shiite militia.

In both cases, Annan did everything humanly possible, but a secretary-general, for all that we romanticize him, can do very little to alter the fundamental calculations of states. As the United Nations begins in earnest to choose a replacement for Annan, we must bear in mind that a secretary-general is, in the end, a creature of the geopolitical moment.

A U.N. truism holds that secretaries-general have good first terms and bad second ones. The arc of Annan's career certainly conforms to type. But that's not because he ran out of gas or because he exhausted his store of political capital. Rather, Annan had good luck followed by very, very bad luck.

From 1997 through 2000, the world was largely at peace, none of the horrific civil wars in the Third World rose to genocidal proportions, and the White House was occupied by an internationalist Democrat. Then, in rapid succession, a unilaterally-minded Republican took office, 9/11 shattered the interval of peace, the U.S. invaded Iraq in the teeth of international opposition and one of Sudan's interminable ethnic conflicts erupted into a scorched-earth war. The man who had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 suddenly looked hapless, even pitiful.

Annan's detractors see it differently. They believe that he is very much the author of his own misfortunes. In late 2004, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) called for the secretary-general to resign, accusing him of tolerating an atmosphere of corruption inside the U.N. as the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal unfolded. Others critics in the West have insisted that Annan is hostile to Israel and to Washington's legitimate security interests.

In the developing world, on the other hand, Annan is regularly denounced as Washington's puppet, a charge often flung in his face during his recent swing through the Middle East. Others with no ideological ax to grind, including U.N. insiders, feel that Annan is far too much a creature of the U.N. (where he spent about 30 years before becoming secretary-general) to change its entrenched culture of patronage and idle paper-pushing.

But secretaries-general should be judged according to what they can do, and not what they can't. Even the great Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish diplomat who served as the second U.N. chief, could do nothing to blunt the hostilities of the Cold War, including the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Hammarskjold's greatness lay elsewhere: in the immense prestige he lent to his office through the sheer force of his rhetoric and majestic impartiality, and in the development of a wholly new form of intervention known as peacekeeping. Hammarskjold made the U.N. matter as it had not before. Under him, it grew; under his successors -- at least until Annan took over -- it generally shrank. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the gifted but sharp-tongued and imperious Egyptian who preceded Annan, so irked policymakers in Washington, including U.N. supporters, that he practically put the institution out of business.

Annan did not get the Nobel Peace Prize for temporarily averting war in Iraq. In fact, he did something harder: He restored the relevance of the U.N. The new U.N. head brought Washington back into the fold through a combination of unflagging solicitude and gentle prodding. Annan's promulgation of a new spirit of self-criticism brought the U.N. to anatomize the mistakes that led to the peacekeeping fiascos in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s. This, in turn, encouraged the U.S. and other states to fund new ventures in Sierra Leone, East Timor, the Congo and elsewhere. Finally, Annan restored the status of moral arbiter -- of "secular pope" -- with which Hammarskjold had first imbued the office.

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