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The Confessions of Kofi Annan

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Evan Schneider/UN Photo
Kofi Annan in Darfur, listening to two women who had suffered at the hands of the Janjaweed militia, May 2005

How do we explain Kofi Annan’s enduring moral prestige? The puzzle is that it has survived failures, both his own and those of the institution he served for fifty years.1 Personal charisma is only part of the story. In addition to his charm, of which there is plenty, there is the authority that comes from experience. Few people have spent so much time around negotiating tables with thugs, warlords, and dictators. He has made himself the world’s emissary to the dark side.

To these often dire negotiations, he brought a soothing temperament that became second nature early in his Ghanaian childhood. His father, Henry Reginald Annan, lived across two worlds, as a senior executive with a British multinational corporation and a hereditary chieftain in a country poised on the eve of national independence. In the Ghanaian struggle, the Annan family occupied the cautious middle, supporting independence but keeping their distance from the revolutionary nationalism of Kwame Nkrumah.

From these experiences, Annan became adept at circumspection and skillful in dealing with all sides, while keeping his own cards concealed. It was a temperament perfect for the UN. When he found his career in Ghana blocked by a succession of military regimes, he enlisted in the UN and has spent all his life in its upper reaches in New York and Geneva. Like Barack Obama, he learned early to live across racial divides and to position himself as the rational and relaxed confidant of all, while belonging finally to no one but himself.

Being at once agreeable and remote isn’t the whole story. It doesn’t explain how he managed to keep his reputation intact while rising up through nether regions of the UN bureaucracy—human resources and budgeting—where nepotism and mismanagement were notorious. This ascent demanded a polite but ruthless care of his own reputation, together with an ability to distance himself from trouble. Along the way he deeply internalized the moral rhetoric of the institution and never let its dreary reality drain away his idealism. Once elevated, through American support, to the UN’s highest office in 1996, he displayed unsuspected flair and managed to articulate in every nuanced but committed utterance the still unspent hopes that survived inside the institution itself. When he accepted the Nobel Prize awarded jointly to him and the UN in 2001, he seemed to many the most complete incarnation of its ideals of any secretary-general who ever lived.

If prestige is to last, it must be burnished with accomplishment, and much happened on his watch—the UN Global Compact, the Millennium Development Goals, the Global AIDS Fund, the International Criminal Court, the “responsibility to protect” doctrine—for which we praise him because he gave them benevolent encouragement and maximum publicity. Like no secretary-general before him, Annan understood modern media and used the power of his own celebrity to raise the visibility of his institution. He also understood that globalization was empowering new actors besides sovereign states, and he was shrewd enough to realize that the UN had to stop being an intergovernmental organization alone but must establish partnerships with corporations, NGOs, and that ever-multiplying creation, global civil society. He understood that while his authority came from the member states who pay the bills and cast the votes, his moral prestige came from “we the peoples,” the millions of ordinary people whose faith in the UN had managed to survive serial disillusion.

Realists dismiss the UN as “a political entity without any independent will,” to use Perry Anderson’s phrase, but they miss the power that flows from moral prestige.2 To paraphrase Stalin’s remark about the pope, Annan understood that the UN had no divisions, but it was the bearer of hopes, and in this lay such power as the secretary-general enjoyed. He was the most successful holder of the office since Dag Hammarskjöld in leveraging the world’s hopes into personal moral influence.

But there remains a mystery about his prestige. Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Václav Havel acquired theirs by standing up to tyrants. Kofi Annan acquired his by talking to them. Prestige acquired in this manner is bound to be ambiguous and to leave a complex legacy.

In February 1998, he flew to Baghdad and persuaded Saddam Hussein to let the UN weapon inspectors back in. He was greeted as a hero when he returned and the world fell under his spell. Modest and unassuming as he was, he became prone to believing his own magic. There is more than a little hubris in a passing remark he makes in his memoir to the effect that his actions as secretary-general were coming to have more influence than the Security Council. In fact it was the imminent threat of American air strikes, as much as Annan’s good offices, that concentrated Saddam’s mind, and in any event, war was only delayed, not forestalled.

When no credible threat of force hangs in the air, as in the case of his recent mission to Syria in August of this year, Annan’s shuttle diplomacy may only have provided the US, as well as Russia and China, with an alibi for doing nothing. When he abandoned his Syria mission, he observed that no mediator succeeds if he wants peace more than the protagonists.3 But he must have known this when he started. In his eagerness to serve there is the pathos of a global politician in retirement fearing that his moral prestige will waste away—only to discover, too late, that you can also lose it when you use it.

Annan’s enduring authority is also perplexing because his past won’t leave him in peace. To use Samantha Power’s cruel words, “his name would appear in the history books beside the two defining genocidal crimes of the second half of the twentieth century,” Rwanda and Srebrenica.4 His memoir is called Interventions, as if to recognize that his public career will always be judged by his part in the UN’s most ill-fated operations.

In confronting these incidents, he and his cowriter and former aide, Nader Mousavizadeh, have decided that when a reputation is under scrutiny, candor is the best defense. The result is a resolute, detailed, and unflinching review of his most difficult hours. They quote in full the now notorious fax that the UN force commander in Rwanda, Romeo Dallaire, sent in January 1994 to UN headquarters seeking Annan’s authorization for military action to arrest prospective genocidaires. Annan turned Dallaire down, and neither he nor the secretary-general at the time, Boutros Boutros Ghali, ever communicated Dallaire’s request for action to the Security Council.

Dallaire, Power, Philip Gourevitch, and other close observers of the Rwanda catastrophe believe that preventive military action by the UN at that point might have averted the horrendous events that unfolded months later in April, May, and June, leaving 800,000 people dead. Annan’s answer to these charges—it has not varied in a decade—recalls that the Americans had just been driven from Somalia after the disastrous Blackhawk Down episode and Dallaire’s proposed intervention risked a similar debacle:

In Dallaire’s cabled request to raid, we saw the ingredients of a disaster akin to the failed raid on Aidid in Mogadishu three months earlier—but with a force that was a thousand times weaker in military capabilities and entirely isolated from any possibility of reinforcement.

In an astonishing admission, Annan adds that Dallaire’s force was “a peace-keeping force, sent in a deliberately weak and vulnerable form to engender the trust of both sides.” Deliberately weak and vulnerable… When moral prestige deludes itself into thinking it need not arm itself, it can make itself an accomplice of evil.

The same dismaying faith in the deterrent force of good intentions fatally shaped UN policy over the safe havens in Bosnia. Annan was in charge of UN peacekeeping in this period and watched helplessly as governments in the Security Council crafted mandates and deployed troops that could not possibly protect the safe havens if they came under determined attack. To his credit, Annan stood his ground. He told the Security Council that the safe havens could not be protected with anything less than an additional 32,000 troops. It ignored the advice, leaving civilians for a second time to be protected by “presence” rather than forces authorized and willing to fight. Eight thousand civilians in Srebrenica paid with their lives for this fatal illusion about the force of the UN’s moral prestige.

Annan has rebuilt his own moral prestige since Bosnia by being candid when others have been less so, including presidents and prime ministers. In his memoir, he admits mistakes, showing how the UN peacekeeping bureaucracy was unable to assume the huge burdens imposed on it by light-minded governments at the end of the cold war. He takes responsibility now, remarking at one point:

To a man, woman, or child for whom the presence of a blue helmet is all that lies between safety and certain death, talk of limited mandates, inadequate means, and under-resourced missions—however accurate—is, at best, beside the point, at worst, a betrayal.

The one thing he never did at the time was go public with his doubts. He admitted in a recent interview with Charlie Rose that he should have shouted from the rooftops to protest the Security Council’s unwillingness to protect the safe havens in Bosnia with robust deployments, but he adds, characteristically, that the UN Secretariat’s idea of public relations was “archaic.”5 And so he kept silent. As an international civil servant, it was not his job to publicly upbraid national governments. This is to blame the mandarin culture of the Secretariat, but also to admit that he was a prisoner of that culture.

The essential paradox of Annan’s career is that through a period in which the UN’s prestige declined in the 1990s, crippled by moral promises it failed to keep, his prestige emerged unscathed. His political stock with the Americans also rose. When the US finally decided to do something about the slaughter in Bosnia in August 1995, Annan was helpful in overcoming UN resistance to the bombing of Serb targets. Within weeks American air power, coupled with assistance to the Croats, turned the tide against the Serbs and brought them to the negotiations at Dayton.

Having made himself useful in Bosnia, Annan became an obvious candidate when Madeleine Albright and Bill Clinton were looking for someone to replace Boutros Ghali. It is a mark of his shrewdness that he understood, as Boutros Ghali had not, that the UN could not succeed unless America reinvested in it. Once elected in 1996, he used his celebrity to sooth Congress, appease the anti-UN Republican hawks, and unfreeze US contributions to the organization.

Interventions reveals how difficult it proved to keep his American friends happy. Madeleine Albright pushed his candidacy through and then bullied him unmercifully, at one point waking him up at 4:30 in the morning to dictate the language of a press release on Iraq. She “never quite understood,” he says with icy understatement, that he was also responsible to other members of the UN.

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David Burnett/Contact Press Images
Kofi Annan meeting in Pakistan with Taliban Foreign Minister Mullah Ahmad Mutawakil (white turban) and, to his left, Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, March 2001

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.

  1. 1

    The failures—Oil for Food, Rwanda, Srebrenica, sex scandals among UN peacekeepers—are on vivid display in a witty if relentless and one-sided documentary, U.N. Me, written, produced, and directed by Matthew Groff and Ami Horowitz, available from Visio Entertainment. 

  2. 2

    See Perry Anderson, “Our Man,” London Review of Books, May 10, 2007, a review of James Traub, The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American Power (Bloomsbury, 2006). 

  3. 3

    Kofi Annan “Statement,” Geneva, August 2, 2012. 

  4. 4

    Samantha Power, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World (Penguin, 2008), p. 239. 

  5. 5

    The Charlie Rose Show, September 10, 2012. 

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