He was too canny a politician, however, not to have understood that it was good politics for both the Clinton and Bush administrations to beat up the UN publicly. Yet both administrations turned to him when they needed his moral benediction. Even an administration bent on a unilateral invasion of Iraq felt obliged to send Colin Powell to make its case for war to the UN. The most vivid pages of Interventions describe the foreign ministers’ lunch after Powell’s presentation when he faced the disbelieving Dominique de Villepin of France and Igor Ivanov of Russia. After assuring them and Annan that he personally hated war—“I’ve lost friends in war; I’ve fought in two wars; I’ve commanded wars”—Powell then asserted that he didn’t “accept the premise that wars always lead to bad results.” At this point, Joschka Fischer of Germany chimed in, “And we are the best example of that.”
The scene captures politics at the top as Annan lived it, but it also encapsulates what the UN is actually for. It is the forum that forces the powerful to earn legitimacy by persuading the weak that their cause is just. Powell was still seeking that legitimacy six weeks after the invasion itself when he came to Annan’s office with a team of briefers to prove that the US invaders had found Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. A troubled secretary of state was still looking for absolution. “Kofi, they’ve made an honest man of me,” he exclaimed. Annan and his team remained stonily unconvinced by the evidence.
Prestige accrues to those who get the big issues right. Annan got Iraq right. Saddam Hussein had stopped all programs to make WMDs since 1991. If the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN inspector Hans Blix had been listened to, and Blix had been given more time to confirm them, Iraq’s lack of WMDs would have been exposed. But as Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz later admitted, they couldn’t allow the “Jews and the Persians” to find out and so they stonewalled the inspectors, provoking the invasion and their regime’s downfall.
Colin Powell’s reputation never recovered from Iraq and it proved a turning point for Annan’s as well. For five years, he fought to keep the UN at the center of the diplomatic dance with Saddam, while seeking to guarantee that if force was used, it would be approved through the Security Council. But he had already created a precedent for unilateral action, having given his blessing to the NATO operation in Kosovo, launched without Security Council approval. Now, with the Security Council flatly refusing to endorse an invasion of Iraq, he concluded that the American invasion was “illegal.” The Bush administration never forgave him for that judgment. It ignored the UN, plunged into the invasion, and Annan was left to draw slim consolation from the knowledge that he and his organization had refused to legitimize a debacle:
The United Nations had stood up for itself, and its founding principles. It would matter little to the world—and to the people of Iraq—in the months and years to come, but far worse would have been [to be] a rubber stamp for a war fought on false premises.
In August 2003, Annan’s personal envoy in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and twenty-two of his colleagues were blown up in a terrorist attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad. It was a parable of trust misplaced. Annan and the UN put their faith in American protection and Annan paid for this faith by losing one of his oldest friends and closest collaborators.
In the year that followed the invasion, scandal erupted over Oil for Food, the UN program established to ensure that Saddam wouldn’t use the international sanctions regime to starve his own people. With the active collusion of UN officials, the Saddam regime siphoned $8.4 billion of illegal kickbacks from the scheme, and some UN officials and foreign contractors made illicit fortunes on a program supposed to help the poorest Iraqis. When Annan appointed Paul Volcker to uncover the truth about Oil for Food. Volcker discovered that Cotecna, one of the more than two thousand companies involved in these kickbacks, had hired Kojo Annan, Kofi’s son, and paid him until 2004, even though he stopped working there in 1998.
Having been the darling of the American media and Washington establishment, Annan now watched, in a gathering haze of depression, as they turned on him and press conferences rang with calls for his resignation. In December 2004, with his prestige in tatters, Annan agreed to a soul-searching review of his predicament at Richard Holbrooke’s apartment in New York. There, Les Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations told him that after a visit to check with his sources in Washington, the Bush administration’s view of Annan was: “They won’t push you, but if you stumble, they’re not going to catch you either.”
Annan survived by calling in every political favor he had accumulated in a long career. His friend Bill Clinton went to the White House and told George Bush, “You do not want Kofi Annan’s blood on your hands,” to which Bush replied, “My right-wingers want to destroy the United Nations, but I don’t.”
In his final two years as secretary-general, Annan fought to salvage his reputation. He took responsibility for the abject management failures and outright thievery that had characterized Oil for Food and sought to regain the political initiative by launching a frenetic attempt to reform the institution. He wanted to enlarge the Security Council, create a peace-building commission, and replace the discredited Human Rights Commission with a Human Rights Council. The effort was worthy but the moment for reform had passed. By then, the US had sent the obstreperous ambassador John Bolton to the UN as a sign of its displeasure and as a sop to Bush’s right wing. Annan discovered that his own prestige was too depleted to achieve significant reform. A secretary-generalship that had begun with hope in 1996 ended in frustration in 2006.
When you recall how Annan’s secretary-generalship ended, you begin to understand his hunger to remain in the public eye, to mediate a political settlement in Kenya following disputed elections in 2008, and finally to find peace in Syria. These quests for peace are something more than an experienced mediator’s desire to stay busy. In some deep way, given what he has seen, lived through, and taken responsibility for, they can be taken as a conscientious man’s quest for redemption.
Annan’s story is a cautionary tale about the fragility of moral prestige in a world still stubbornly ruled by state interest. He can be seen as an entrepreneur of moral standards, promoting new ideas of collective behavior, sovereign responsibility, and international criminal accountability for a world that briefly believed that globalization might bring us together. He put his own prestige on the line to bring peace to war zones from Bosnia to East Timor. He will talk to tyrants if there is a chance for peace. To achieve these goals, he was prepared—this was the essence of his job—to live with the narrow nationalism of the state interests he served and the cowardice of the UN bureaucracy that made him who he was. No one ever came closer to being the voice of “we the peoples” and no one paid a higher price for it. The world still needs such a voice, but the next person who tries to fill that role will want to reflect long and hard on the lessons of this candid, courageous, and unsparing memoir.