This is the season for summing up the legacy of Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General whose ten-year reign comes to an end on December 31. Just a few weeks ago, I attended a day-long seminar at Georgetown University assessing his "legacy for Africa." The forty scholars, diplomats and civil servants agreed that Africa had benefited from his campaigns against AIDS and poverty, his hectoring against military coups, his championing of peacekeeping missions, and his remarkable doctrine asserting that the UN has the right to trump sovereignty and cross any border to stop a government from abusing its peoples.
But the day-long meeting had a surreal air. Since the subject was Annan and his native Africa, no one ever brought up Iraq. Yet Annan’s years as leader of the UN were overwhelmed and smothered by Iraq. From his annoyance over the aggressive antics of chief inspector Richard Butler, to his disappointing meeting with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, to his failure to rein in George W. Bush and prevent the invasion of Iraq, to his attempt to carve out a role for the UN after the invasion, to the barrage of denouncements in the so-called oil for food scandal, Annan had to wrestle with the gargantuan problem of Iraq. When historians look at this era in the future, they will surely see and write about little else but Iraq.
Annan will be judged favorably. The invasion of Iraq was a foolish and terrible catastrophe. Historians will credit the Secretary-General for opposing it and for steering the UN through the crisis with its honor intact. They will also recognize that he was a dynamic and influential Secretary-General in the mold of the great Dag Hammarskjöld. He will be credited with brokering a ceasefire in the Israeli-Lebanon war, working tirelessly for Middle East peace, and infusing the UN with unusual transparency.
But Annan will not be regarded as a major player in the Iraqi crisis. President Bush’s foray to the UN was a sham. He was set to invade Iraq no matter what happened at the UN Security Council. The Secretary-General had no way of stopping the United States. As soon as the Americans invaded Iraq, the Bush White House shunted Annan aside. From time to time, he was called in grudgingly to help the Americans set up an Iraqi government and stage elections. For the most part, however, Annan was battered mercilessly by the neo-conservatives, some crying for his resignation.
The story of Annan and the Bush White House, in fact, reveals a great squandering of opportunity. The UN works best when the United States and the Secretary-General act in harmony, uniting American power and influence with the Secretary-General’s moral force and international standing.
In many ways, Annan, though born in Ghana, is the most American of all those who have headed the UN. In that era a half-century ago when Americans were wildly optimistic about Africa, the Ford Foundation plucked him out of Ghana for training in the United States. He was educated at Macalester College and later MIT, lived in the US for many years, counted many Americans as good friends, and understood American politics and attitudes. He owes his election as Secretary-General to Madeleine Albright when she was the American ambassador to the UN. Unable to abide Boutros Boutros-Ghali, she vetoed his bid for a second term as Secretary-General and campaigned for Annan to take his place.
Annan has all the traits Americans admire in a partner. He is independent but not stubborn. He is accommodating but not servile. He is honest but not arrogant. Yet the Bush White House, which had little use for the UN in any case, treated him with contempt. There was no harmony.
The Israeli-Lebanon crisis in July demonstrated Annan’s potential. From the beginning, he denounced Hezbollah for its rockets and for its unprovoked attack that started the crisis. He denounced Israel even more for what he regarded as a disproportionate response. The Israeli bombing was killing hundreds of Lebanese civilians, many of them children. The Secretary-General called again and again for a ceasefire.
These calls angered President Bush and the Israeli government, for both had deluded themselves into believing that the Israeli Defense Force could wipe out Hezbollah in a week or two. Bush’s irritation was made obvious at a summit meeting of the Group of Eight in St. Petersburg, Russia when he was overheard telling British prime minister Tony Blair that Annan, instead of calling for a ceasefire, should pressure Syria "to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit."
In the end, Annan proved wiser than his detractors. Israeli troops bogged down in southern Lebanon and failed to destroy Hezbollah. The crisis, in fact, transformed Hezbollah into the heroes of the Middle East. After a month of bloodshed, the Security Council passed a unanimous resolution calling for a ceasefire and authorizing a force of 15,000 UN peacekeepers to join the Lebanese army in patrolling southern Lebanon.
After the resolution was approved, the Secretary-General swiftly assumed the role of the major diplomatic player. He persuaded Israel and Lebanon to accept the ceasefire, cajoled Europe into supplying the bulk of the new UN force, and toured the capitals of the Middle East to shore up the ceasefire. It was kind of an heroic climax to his last year as Secretary-General. He had defied the Bush Administration for a month and then served as the main broker of peace. But he served as the main broker only because the US, refusing to talk with Syria and Iran itself, now cooperated and supported him. It was a glimmer of what might have been if Bush and Annan had been in harmony more often.
When the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, a terrible gloom descended on the United Nations. UN diplomats and civil servants pondered what, if anything, was left of their relevance. Richard A. Perle, the American guru of neo-conservatism, gloated in an op-ed article in the Guardian newspaper in Britain. "Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror is about to end," Perle wrote. "He will go quickly, but not alone; in a parting irony he will take the UN down with him." The darkness was so oppressive that Annan had to struggle with his own melancholia.
Yet the Secretary-General never let the UN lose its way or its relevance. In total absence of histrionics, he led the UN though more than three years of crisis with moral clarity, inner strength and wise counsel. Op-ed articles about the death of the UN do not appear anymore. The American use of the Security Council in the North Korea and Darfur crises demonstrates that not even the Bush White House doubts the UN’s relevance now. The dramatic change of mood is a considerable achievement of the departing Secretary-General.