Annan’s Principled Pragmatism

Annan’s Principled Pragmatism

Although Kofi Annan’s tenure was shadowed by political catfights, he leaves the United Nations as one of its most successful secretary generals.


Ban Ki-moon was sworn into office as the new United Nations Secretary General on December 14. Soon he will be sworn at, when once again the UN fails to obey US orders. Any secretary general’s honeymoon in Washington is likely to be short. Who now remembers that outgoing Secretary General Kofi Annan was a US nomination back in 1996, or that he managed to persuade Jurassic Jesse Helms to cut a deal on paying off Washington’s debt to the UN?

As Annan leaves, it gives him some wry satisfaction that John Bolton, the US ambassador who thought he was a viceroy, has been sent off the field by the new Democratic Congress. After spending his first term perceived almost as a secular saint, Annan spent much of his second being reviled by Bolton’s soulmates as a global kleptocrat.

It was mostly in the United States that the sustained neocon Swift-boating, through the alleged “Oil for Food Scandal,” muddied Annan’s reputation. Fortunately, the rest of the world took little notice of those furious and hyperbolic exaggerations. Annan’s historical position is now clearer, and it is not just customary valediction to say that he has been one of the most effective secretary generals in UN history. Successes in Sierra Leone, Liberia, East Timor, Lebanon and Congo’s first free elections in four decades are no mean vindication of Annan’s principled pragmatism.

Bill Clinton pushed Annan’s appointment because of a misapprehension that he would be a reverse of his predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali: more secretary than general. Clinton and his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, did not want someone with big ideas and a big mouth engaging in public debates with their Administration. They thought they could count on the reserved UN bureaucrat to deliver.

They were right about the big mouth, wrong on the big ideas. Annan is not a great orator. Audiences have to strain to hear his softly spoken phrases, whose content has usually been carefully polished to remove any language that would be too confrontational. Yet the big ideas kept coming.

As a cog in the UN juggernaut hijacked by the great powers, Annan was implicated in the bloody failures in Bosnia and Rwanda, and on taking office he tried to make “Never Again” more than an empty slogan, beginning with an unprecedentedly open report on the UN’s role in those events. Human rights, development and global responsibility were his constant refrain over the years, and he reclaimed a role for the UN as a standard setter, making development a global issue.

Annan’s quiet authority and palpable decency made him a perfect standard-bearer both for the organization and for these values. It was precisely those strengths that the xenophobic wing of the US media tried to undermine in his second term, when he stated the obvious truths about Washington’s disregard for international law and human rights, most notably in Iraq.

However, there is a built-in contradiction in combining the roles of peacemaker and tribune of the world’s peoples. The secretary general cannot bad-mouth perpetrators too strongly, since he may have to negotiate with them. Even some close aides wish that Annan had been more stentorian in his statements. Annan admits that sometimes he may have been too low-key, but he argues that “particularly when it comes to human dignity and individual rights, some of the positions I have taken…are also intended to empower others, particularly the civil society. In some countries people can quote the secretary general…and not go to jail. If they say it themselves they will be in trouble.”

When Annan took office, the UN was still reeling from decades of Congressional assault–culminating in the US putsch against Boutros-Ghali. The organization had few friends in Washington. Annan realized the importance of engaging the United States actively–not just for the sake of his own survival but for that of the organization itself. That predicated cultivating a US constituency, and Annan was remarkably successful at it for most of his tenure. In particular, he engaged American Jewish organizations and worked hard to end the isolation of Israel inside the world body, at the risk of alienating key international constituencies. This led to criticism–some of it from supporters and close associates–that he was forgetting the Palestinians. However, Annan has consistently restated and emphasized the UN’s legal and humanitarian positions on Israel, and he condemned the Israeli attack on the UN’s Khiyam outpost in Lebanon during the summer war.

Annan had built enough trust from both sides for the resolution of this summer’s war in Lebanon, which was perhaps the best vindication of his principled pragmatism. Once again, the UN had to cope with the consequences of Washington’s refusal to listen to others. Annan called for a cease-fire when two permanent members, the United States and Britain, regarded it as “premature.” While the Security Council was tied down by a threatened US veto, Annan had the UN pre-emptively preparing a solution–an expanded and reinforced peacekeeping force, which allowed the Israelis and their allies to climb down from the pole up which they had clambered. Ten years ago it was a major plank of Israeli, and consequently US, Middle East policy to exclude the UN from any role. Following ten years of Annan’s tightrope diplomacy, the Israelis pleaded for the UN to step in.

While the Bush White House did not overtly join the assault on Annan’s integrity during the so-called Oil for Food Scandal, it certainly did not try to curb the rabid right when they were calling for his resignation. Annan admits, “There have been times when it has been tough, particularly when some people on the Hill or the right wing begin attacking the UN and the Secretary General, and no one pulls them back…. If you undermine the organization to that extent, your own population may ask you, Why are you going to this organization that you’ve discredited so much?”

For fifteen years the US perception of the UN has revolved around the issue of Iraq. The organization was a convenient scapegoat for US policy failures, which ricocheted catastrophically from insufficient resolution to too much. Washington expected the UN to follow faithfully every wobble. Saddam Hussein did consistently violate the terms of UN resolutions, but Washington’s positions, not least in treating weapons inspectors as a branch of US intelligence, succeeded in giving his defiance quasi legitimacy. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations made it plain they would veto any lifting of sanctions until regime change–even though this was not in any way a part of the UN resolutions. First Boutros-Ghali and then Annan had to negotiate compliance from Baghdad, even though Washington’s veto insured that they could offer no “light at the end of the tunnel.” Iraqi civilians paid the price for the obduracy of both Baghdad and Washington. In 1998, after negotiating with Saddam, Annan himself pointed out, “You can do a lot with diplomacy, but with diplomacy backed up by force you can get a lot more done.” That was never consistently forthcoming.

Annan is deeply conscious of the collateral damage of the Iraq War on the global community: “It led to a major division in this organization and in the world. And it has not healed yet…. At the early stages the leaders themselves were quite divided, and they were very vocal about it…. They are trying to mend fences and work together, but we are not there yet.”

In his typically oblique way, Annan lodges a criticism of the invasion: “The member states debated it fully here, and you noticed that the majority of the members in the Council could not bring themselves to vote for the military action. The US and others decided to go outside the Council to take action, and of course individual governments are free to take decisions that they wish to. But I think it was appropriate that the Council took the decision it did.” True to form, even at this late stage, when he is beyond the reach of Rush Limbaugh and Norm Coleman, he persists in a nonconfrontational correction.

Following the UN’s laudable but ineffective refusal to authorize the invasion, neocon warrior Richard Perle, a member of George W. Bush’s Defense Policy Board at the time, crowed over the organization’s troubles in an article headlined, “Thank God for the death of the UN.” It wasn’t long before triumph turned to quagmire, with Washington calling on the UN for its services.

The war was also to have profound consequences for Annan’s media image in the United States, as it allowed all the obsessive UN-baiters out of their kennels. Hitherto the perception of him had been of one who was Teflon-coated and unassailable, exuding moral authority. No longer. One of the postwar responsibilities the UN accepted was the transition from occupation to Iraqi self-government, and the officials involved were well aware that the neocons’ man, Ahmad Chalabi, was a self-promoting carpetbagger with a bigger constituency in Washington think tanks than in Baghdad. Chalabi and the think tanks bitterly opposed UN involvement, not least for that reason. He came to New York and threatened Annan’s office with consequences–with the Oil for Food Scandal, in fact.

At the time Annan described the imbroglio as “a bit like lynching.” A distressing number of American media assessments of his tenure are still presenting it as a taint on Annan’s reputation rather than a blot on their colleagues’ integrity for joining in the malicious Swift-boating. In fact, as demonstrated in these pages [see Williams, “The Right’s Assault on Kofi Annan,” January 10/17, 2005], by any rational standards Oil for Food was a success, so much so that Washington asked that it be continued in the year after the invasion. The Volcker Commission inquiry alleged that the OFF director had received $140,000 over four years in kickbacks from perfectly legal, if unethical, oil trades. The rest of the money allegedly transferred to Saddam was the result of oil sales in breach of sanctions but condoned by Security Council members, or from companies whose behavior was overlooked by member governments.

Still bemused by the media battering, Annan suggests that publicity during the inquiry was “patently unfair. What was interesting was the way they handled it, with rogue investigators leaking information and leading people astray. When the full story came out and they discovered that the scandal was not here but in the capitals, with the 2,200 companies involved in kickbacks, the story died.” No part of the scandal was more dead than the $10 billion from the program that was given to US occupation authorities–spent lavishly and with very little paper trail. Representative Henry Waxman has been a lonely voice in Washington following the trail from OFF to GOP crony contractors. So far Annan’s media persecutors have shown little interest.

Those who do not read or watch the Murdoch media will probably note that Annan’s biggest historical legacy will be the “Responsibility to Protect.” Rather than try to amend the UN Charter, in 2005 he maneuvered the heads of state at the UN’s sixtieth-anniversary World Summit to reinterpret it. From now on, the threats to “peace and security” that the Security Council is chartered to fight include governments’ failures to protect their own people, thus overturning the centuries-old principle of absolute national sovereignty accepted by the Charter.

Annan reminisces about the initial reaction to his raising the subject: “When I said, back in 1999, ‘We cannot accept that governments can hide behind the shield of sovereignty and brutalize their people or allow these violations to go on,’ quite a lot of ambassadors were very upset that I was encouraging interference in their internal affairs. And yet five, six years on, we have the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ as a principle accepted by all heads of state.” It has taken several millennia for an accepted principle like “Thou shalt not kill” to be implemented, so we should not be too disappointed if the continuing carnage in Darfur casts doubt upon the sincerity of many of those heads. At least the concept strips the defenders of mass murder of any spurious legal or ethical defense based on national sovereignty.

Even if it is unfinished business, Darfur is certainly not Annan’s failure; he has been remarkably outspoken about the culpability of Khartoum. “When I hear heads of state get up and say, ‘The UN must act in, say, Darfur,’ who is the UN here?” he asks. “We need to hold governments to the solemn pledge they made in the General Assembly. Most people believe that Darfur is a sort of test, so we need to remind them that they made this solemn pledge and we want them to redeem it. What’s even more important is that peoples around the world can use this to push member states to action.” He adds, “Without pressure from the population and civil society, I don’t think they would do it.”

Annan has done more than any predecessor to insure that those invoked in the opening words of the UN Charter, “We the peoples of the world,” have a serious place on the UN agenda. Under very difficult circumstances, one of which was the negative role of US administrations, he has done remarkably well.

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