Bush v. Annan: taming the United Nations.

Author:Walker, Martin

The wretched regime of Saddam Hussein, having inflicted wars on its neighbors and gruesome misrule and chemical weapons on its own citizens, is doing more damage from beyond the grave. The skill of Saddam Hussein's corrupting oil wealth and of his smuggling operations has exposed the administration of the United Nations to its enemies. And in President George W. Bush's America, the United Nations has enemies in abundance, and the complex but scandalous nature of the U.N.'s internal difficulties makes it hard for the U.N.'s friends to defend it. The United Nations now stands at bay in a confrontation that is protean in the way it sets the physical power of the world's only superpower against the moral power of the international body. This battle may yet have some rounds to be fought, but there is no doubting its scale, nor its global news value. Remarkably, not even the awesome devastation of last December's Asian tsunami could quite put the human rivalries over the United Nations into their place; the confrontation spilled over into a diplomatic jostling match to decide who would take responsibility, and possibly credit, for the reconstruction effort.

The struggle set the newly reelected president of the United States against the lame duck secretary general of the United Nations, although it was their surrogates who took up the cudgels. Two of the world's most impressive spin machines then became locked in deadly combat. On the one side was the mob that Hillary Clinton once called "the vast right wing conspiracy," a group of conservative U.S. senators and congressmen, and their intensely ideological staffs, Rupert Murdoch's Fox News television channel and his New York Post, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, the National Review, and some other organs of nationalist conservatism, all calling for the head of U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan.

Kofi must go, they thundered, because Saddam Hussein was allowed to steal over $20 billion in the U.N.'s oil-for-food scandal that happened on Annan's watch. This is a shameless exaggeration, but there were abuses, and the blame spreads around a large number of people and institutions, including the U.S. government bureaucracy as well as the U.N. administration that Annan runs. But what really offends this conservative coalition is Annan's political effrontery during an American presidential election season. Annan twice publicly challenged the Bush administration's foreign policy, first by writing an appeal to halt the attack on Fallujah, and then by calling Bush's Iraq war "illegal." (In fact this was the fault of the BBC, whose reporter badgered poor Annan into using the word. Annan was asked the same question repeatedly until he came up with what he thought was the rather less provocative phrase, "illegal in terms of the U.N. Charter," which he now privately regrets.)

Republican senator Norman Coleman, after a committee investigation claimed to have found evidence that the United Nations had let Saddam get his crooked hands on $21.3 billion, demanded that Annan resign. This was accompanied by a resolution before both houses of Congress demanding that Annan leave office, backed up by a bill that would enforce the will of Congress by cutting 10 percent from the U.S. payment next year, 20 percent the year after, and so on, until the United Nations comes to heel. Some of the more outspoken local politicians in New York were even cruder, suggesting that the United Nations should be evicted to Europe. "Let the French deal with all the U.N. diplomats and their unpaid parking tickets," said Brooklyn's state senator Martin J. Golden. "We have a U.N. here that has a tendency to just ignore us, insult us, be a bad neighbor, and not do what it should do. This guy Kofi Annan could have stood with us in Iraq, decided not to. He oversaw $21 billion being robbed from oil-for-food." This figure is a ridiculous exaggeration, as we shall see.

On the other side is the great amorphous mass of global liberalism, all clucking in unison that Kofi Annan is the best U.N. secretary general since Dag Hammarskjold (although a list that includes Kurt Waldheim and Boutros Boutros-Ghali is not much competition). Led by British prime minister Tony Blair and the departing U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell, and reinforced by the governments of China, Russia, Germany, and France, the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Washington Post, and the news bulletins of National Public Radio and the BBC, the international establishment has rallied to Annan as the first African to run the world body, and as the first secretary general to bring forward thoughtful and even bold plans for U.N. reform.

Kofi Annan must stay, they all cry, most of them thrilling to the symbolism of a clash between President Bush, who proudly sports a small American flag in his lapel, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Annan, whose equally well-tailored lapel sports a discreet dove, tastefully wrought in white enamel. Annan, who confided to friends last November that it was "a bit like a lynching, actually," was not sure how to respond to these attacks, or whether this kind of media and congressional assault against the United Nations was just a force of nature that had to be endured. But some of the more thoughtful of Annan's supporters, who want to avoid a lasting breach between the organization and its American host, thought that the best way to defend Annan was to go on the offensive, both in Washington and in New York, against the more vulnerable and unreformed aspects of the world body.

Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. representative to the United Nations in the Clinton years, organized a meeting at his New York apartment on December 4 between Annan and some of the key figures in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, who had been asked to join a mission to "save Kofi and rescue the U.N." From the Council on Foreign Relations came Holbrooke and the council's former president Leslie Gelb; from the United Nations Foundation came former U.S. senator and under secretary of state Tim Wirth and Kathy Bushkin from Gary Hart's presidential campaign (their presence gilded by the generosity of CNN founder Ted Turner, whose gifts to the United Nations have been channeled through the foundation); and from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard came John G. Ruggie, a former U.N. assistant secretary general for policy coordination and strategic planning. Also present were Robert C. Orr, the current holder of that post, and Nader Mousavizadeh, Rhodes Scholar and a former editor at the New Republic, who was Annan's aide for six years before joining the investment firm of Goldman Sachs.

Annan, who was largely silent, heard the group warn that the United Nations was on the losing side of a public relations campaign; that the critique of the oil-for-food affair would soon be followed by allegations of sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers in Africa; and that he had to address two serious problems immediately. First, the Republicans who ran the White House and Congress thought Annan had worked for their electoral defeat, and these were not the sort of opponents who took prisoners. So...

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