Turtle Dove

by Franklin Foer | October 14, 2002

On September 12, just after addressing the United Nations, George W. Bush lunched with Kofi Annan. According to U.N. custom, such occasions begin with a toast from the highest-ranking delegate from the host nation, and expectations for Bush's preprandial remarks weren't high. That morning Annan had delivered his own speech to the General Assembly, in which he slammed Bush's unilateralism and made it clear he wouldn't be the administration's yes- man on Iraq. ("I stand before you today as a multilateralist by precedent, by principle, by charter, and by duty.") A copy of his speech had leaked a day early to The New York Times, provoking Bush aides to privately complain about Annan's "showboating." But when Bush rose, one U.N. official recounts, "I nearly spit out my water." The president praised the secretary-general to the hilt. "He essentially called Annan an indispensable leader," says the official. "It was a gushing, gushing homage." But five days later Annan disappointed the Bush team again. On September 16, Saddam Hussein penned a letter accepting "inspections without conditions"-- dramatically undercutting America's push for a new Security Council resolution. Documents obtained by the State Department showed that the letter was co- authored by Annan, who had conspired with the Iraqis to throw a wrench into America's plans. In a conference call that Monday night, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell chewed the secretary-general out. Annan, one state department official told me angrily, "went behind our backs." This is the ongoing theme of the Bush administration's relationship to Annan: It acts as if Annan were a member of the Cabinet. ("My man Kofi," is Powell's pet phrase.) And in many ways Annan is America's ideal secretary- general. He has championed globalization, mowed the U.N. bureaucracy, and chided African governments for playing the colonialism card to divert attention from their own incompetence. So when Annan reverts to conventional U.N. secretary-general behavior--pushing peaceful resolutions to crises, no matter the costs; worrying about impositions on state sovereignty; adhering to a stickler's strict constructionist interpretation of U.N. resolutions--he catches the Bush administration off guard. "It's mystifying, and perhaps arrogant, that [the administration] never sees it coming," says David Malone of the International Peace Academy, an occasional Annan adviser. Unfortunately, Annan reverts to conventional U.N. secretary-general behavior at the worst possible moments. In the face of genocide and dictators, he loses his nerve. That's why he bailed out Saddam last month and why he may still be the Iraqi tyrant's best hope for survival. The mystery, in short, isn't why Annan acts the way he does; it's why the Bush administration expects anything more from him. Annan may be the greatest secretary-general since Dag Hammarskjld died in a 1961 plane crash. But then, it's not hard to look good compared with Nazi Kurt Waldheim or such invisible men as Javier Perez de Cuellar and U Thant. And Annan has benefited enormously from following Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros- Ghali. Pompous and imperious, Boutros-Ghali liked to brag that he disciplined his staff with "stealth and sudden violence." And he felt no compunction about applying the same technique to high-ranking diplomats. In 1995 he accused Madeline Albright, then-U.N. Ambassador, of "vulgarite" in front of the Security Council after she hectored him over the failures of U.N. peacekeeping in Eastern Slavonia. Or, to take the most notorious example of his undiplomatic style: At a 1992 press conference in Sarajevo, with sniper fire and exploding artillery shells in the background, Boutros-Ghali told the besieged Bosnians, "You have a situation that is better than ten other places in the world. ... I can give you a list." In the United States, Boutros-Ghali's arrogance had turned him into a political liability. Bob Dole mocked his name on the stump for laughs. Pat Buchanan warned that the Clintonites had ceded American sovereignty to a world government. In 1996, to defuse the issue, the Clinton administration adopted Annan as their replacement. In contrast to Boutros-Ghali's crass anti- colonialism, the native Ghanaian spoke affectionately about the United States, even ruminating about retiring here. Just as Jesse Helms had demanded, Annan ran on a platform of "reforming" the U.N.'s vast, absurdly bloated bureaucracy. And in a break with the knee-jerk Israel-bashing that had become so much a part of U.N. culture, Annan spoke of his "Israeli friends." In fact, he boasted a premier philo-Semitic credential: marriage to Raoul Wallenberg's niece. Annan's aides claim there's another reason he's a great secretary-general. "He's developed a new theory for the institution that places the human being at the center of the United Nations," says Shahsi Tharoor, one of his two closest advisers. At a glance, it seems banal rhetoric. But it actually represents a massive shift in U.N. doctrine. The organization's 1945 charter wasn't written to protect human rights and individual liberties; it was designed to promote the interests of states. The doctrine most invoked in the U.N.'s chambers was "state sovereignty." But as Annan pointed out in a 1999 speech to the Human Rights Commission, governments usually asserted state sovereignty to justify repression within their own borders. In the speech, which followed the Security Council's failure to endorse NATO air strikes in Kosovo, Annan promised that human rights would finally "take precedence over concerns of state sovereignty. " Annan envisioned a liberal interventionist United Nations. He argued that "given the means--in Kosovo and in Sierra Leone, in East Timor and Angola--we have a real opportunity to break the cycles of violence once and for all." According to Robert Orr, one of U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke's chief deputies, "Within the United Nations, it was nothing short of a revolution." Unfortunately, it was a bold doctrine espoused by a cautious man. During a 30-year career in the U.N. bureaucracy--head of human resources, director of the budget, administrative officer for the Economic Commission for Africa, chief of personnel for the High Commission for Refugees--Annan developed an organization man's phobia of risk. The tension first became clear during his tenure as chief of U.N. peacekeeping, from 1993 to 1996. On his watch the U.N. bungled its response to the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides. To take the sorriest episode from the Bosnian escapade: In 1993, in the town of Srebrenica, U.N. peacekeepers negotiated a cease-fire with Bosnian Serbs in exchange for the disarmament of the town's Muslims. The United Nations promised the Muslims that they didn't need the weapons because the U.N. would protect them in a "safe area." Two years later, 600 Dutch peacekeepers guarded the Muslims residing in the eastern Bosnian U.N. "safe area." But when the Bosnian Serbs mounted their July 1995 assault on Srebrenica, the U.N. betrayed its promise of security. By all accounts, Annan's office in New York sent muddled commands to the field. As a result, the Dutch fired not a single shot; they gave the Muslims the misimpression that they would be protected by NATO air strikes, and, as Serb General Ratko Mladic rounded up Muslim men, the peacekeepers stood aside. In the end, by the best estimates, the Serbs killed an estimated 7,414 Muslim men from the town. But it's Rwanda that provides the clearest window into Annan's mind. Four months before the Hutus embarked on their 1994 genocidal rampage--800,000 Tutsis killed in 100 days--Annan's office in New York received a fax from Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian head of the U.N. contingent in Rwanda. The memo, labeled "most immediate," quoted from a well-placed informant who described in eerily precise terms the planning of the Hutu "anti-Tutsi extermination." Dallaire asked for permission to evacuate the source. He also announced that in the next 36 hours he would raid a "major weapons cache" that had been stockpiled in preparation for the genocide. Annan denied both requests. His office cabled Dallaire, "[T]he overriding consideration is the need to avoid entering into a course of action that might lead to the use of force and unanticipated repercussions." What's worse, he ordered Dallaire to inform Rwanda's Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana of the informant, even though the informant had explicitly named the president's cronies as the planners of the genocide. At these key moments in Bosnia and Rwanda, Annan showed his fundamental timidity by his insistence that U.N. troops adhere to the strict letter of Security Council mandate--even if it meant sacrificing lives--and by his refusal to treat either the Hutus or Serbs as forces of evil rather than negotiating partners. These failures didn't derail Annan's career. In fact, they largely did the opposite. Because he didn't resign in anger or make a fuss about U.N. inaction, he cemented his reputation as innocuous. He failed upward. And then he repeated his mistakes. During the Kosovo crisis of 1999, Annan couldn't (or wouldn't) take the lead in organizing a multinational force to stop the Serb offensive. While he clearly hinted that he personally agreed with NATO's air strikes, he publicly criticized them in a 1999 speech at The Hague: "Unless the Security Council is restored to its pre-eminent position as the sole source of legitimacy on the use of force, we are on a dangerous path to anarchy." And in Sierra Leone the following year, he sent in another peacekeeping corps doomed to repeat the mistakes of Bosnia. Undermanned, under-armed, and without a broad mandate, the peacekeepers were less than ineffective. They'd entered with the goal of keeping the peace between the government and Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front (RUF), even though the only real solution was to destroy Sankoh's band of murderers. "To be neutral here is to be an accomplice in crime," Michael Ingatieff wrote in The New York Times. Soon the 500 Zambian and Indian peacekeepers sent by Annan were taken hostage by the RUF. It created the perfect image of U.N. ineptitude. And once again, the secretary-general expressed his deep remorse for a failed operation. When the United Nations released its report on Srebrenica in the fall of 1999, an anonymous official made explicit the report's implicit conclusion to The New York Times: "Through error, misjudgment and the inability to recognize the scope of evil confronting us we failed to do our part to save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder. These failings were in part rooted in a philosophy of neutrality and nonviolence wholly unsuited to the conflict in Bosnia." Presumably, the United Nations publicly flogged itself so it would never again act like a neutral arbiter in a morally unambiguous situation and would no longer cut doomed deals with duplicitous tyrants. Taken seriously, this lesson would suggest a rather tough line against a leader who launches unprovoked attacks on his neighbors, gasses his citizens, and flaunts U.N. resolutions. And, for a time, it looked like Annan supported a tough approach to Saddam. In 1997 he appointed Richard Butler, a brusque Australian diplomat, to head the team of inspectors monitoring Saddam's post-Gulf war disarmament, the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM). But as Butler came into office, and Europeans increasingly complained about the horrors of sanctions, the Iraqis sensed the United Nations might be susceptible to its gamesmanship. So they worked to undermine public opinion about UNSCOM. (Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and other Saddam surrogates dismissed the inspectors as roughneck "cowboys" and American spies.) The Iraqis hoped these complaints would force the United Nations to send in a new, more sympathetic set of inspectors who would declare Iraq disarmed, thus ending the sanctions regime. As Butler describes in his 2000 memoir, The Greatest Threat, Annan usually played along with Iraq's antics. "The leadership of the U.N. had become a facilitator of Iraqi concealment," Butler writes. Or more precisely, Annan so deeply desired a peaceful resolution to the Iraq crisis that he downplayed Saddam's evasions. There are many small examples. When Butler tried to obtain access to presidential palaces, the Iraqis demanded that the United Nations send cartographers and produce new maps of the contested sites--an obvious stalling tactic. Nevertheless, Annan obliged the Iraqi request. When Aziz complained about the presence of American inspectors in UNSCOM, Annan suggested to Butler that he consider pulling them from the team. When Butler asserted to The New York Times editorial board that Iraqi missiles could "blow away Tel Aviv," a statement of fact echoed by Butler's predecessors, Annan privately chastised him for being "inappropriate." And every time Butler objected that these concessions to the Iraqis might hurt the cause of disarmament, Butler writes, "Annan and his senior staff would try to marginalize them. These `details' were considered unnecessarily complex for what was perceived as a pure diplomatic project." In February 1998, as the Clinton administration clamored to punish Saddam's intransigence with air strikes, Annan traveled to Baghdad. It was his "sacred duty," he announced upon arriving on French President Jacques Chirac's jet, to negotiate a solution. Annan cited passages from the U.N. charter obliging him to work for peace. But he seemed to confuse this obligation with the U.N.'s obligation to disarm Iraq. On his trip he stopped placing U.N. demands on Iraq and began acceding to Iraqi ones. In response to Saddam's qualms about presidential sites, Annan proposed a less rigorous technique for searching the Iraqi dictators' palaces and homes--"white glove inspections," he called them. A separate group from UNSCOM would look at these potential weapons factories accompanied by "senior diplomats." In other words, he tacitly endorsed Iraq's complaints against the UNSCOM "cowboys." A far more striking concession, however, came in the final paragraph of the Memorandum of Understanding signed by Annan and Saddam. It reads: "The lifting of sanctions is obviously of paramount importance to the people and Government of Iraq and the Secretary- General undertook to bring this matter to the full attention of members of the Security Council." Annan had, in effect, granted the argument to Saddam. It was sanctions, not Saddam's manipulations, that caused the Iraqi people to suffer. Now, Annan had signed up to advocate Saddam's position to the world. Upon returning to New York, Annan pronounced his trip a smashing success. "[He's] a man I can do business with," he said of Saddam at a press conference in Turtle Bay. He told confidants that his diplomatic approach had triumphed over Washington's militancy. "They should not encourage me to be a Rambo-- because I can never be a Rambo," he explained to the journalist William Shawcross. He truly believed that he'd made a personal connection with Saddam. But it soon became clear that the connection was entirely illusory. As Annan departed Baghdad, Aziz sent a letter unilaterally making important amendments to the Memorandum of Understanding, such as insisting that "state documents shall not be subjected to the verification in question." Within nine months the UNSCOM inspectors had been thoroughly stymied, blocked from any meaningful searches. But even then Annan didn't back American strikes against Saddam. When Operation Desert Fox commenced in December 1998, he announced, "This is a sad day for the United Nations and for the world. It is also a very sad day for me." At the height of his 1998 visit to Baghdad, Annan received a 2 a.m. call from an enraged Madeline Albright. She couldn't believe the concessions she'd heard that Annan had made to the Iraqis. As her tirade worked toward its crescendo, Annan interrupted, "You're presuming on our friendship." He slammed down the phone. But the Clintonites had good reason to presume. Before Albright had begun to campaign for him, Annan had been a long-shot secretary-general candidate at best. Once Annan got the job, he and Albright together softened up U.N. scourge Jesse Helms, so that in 1999 the Senate approved contributing to the organization's coffers after years of shirking. And even though the Iraq crisis soured Albright and her staff on Annan, it didn't affect the administration's relationship as a whole. Richard Holbrooke especially became a booster of Annan, dining with him in private and praising him in public. Besides, it was never entirely clear that Bill Clinton himself resented Annan's February 1998 intercessions, which prevented him from having to strike Iraq at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, letting him put off an attack until December--a far less politically volatile moment. As John Ruggie, one of Annan's top deputies, argued in The Nation, "President Clinton saw in the U.N. a useful tool to avoid or limit U.S. engagement abroad that might pose domestic political risks and a handy scapegoat when those efforts failed." Far stranger is that the hawkish Bush administration has grown so close to Annan. And it's largely Powell's doing. The two men trace their friendship to the Gulf war, when Annan helped negotiate the release of 900 U.N. employees held in Iraq. They also share an interest in African aids. According to State Department officials, Powell has built up Annan's reputation for reliability within the administration. But it wasn't until September 11 that the Bushies saw Annan's real value--as someone who could take on the Afghan nation-building responsibilities that the Bush team didn't want. In the weeks after the attack, Bush finally convinced the House Republicans to pay $582 million in arrears. Annan has since become a regular presence at the White House, where Bush has declared, he possesses a "good heart." "[Annan is] a class act, as we say in the state of Texas," Bush announced at a New York reception last month. Which helps explain why, despite having been burned by Annan so recently, the State Department seems poised to repeat the mistake. After Powell and Rice slammed him in the September 17 conference call, one U.S. official pointed me to the headline of a Los Angeles Times article: "ANNAN BOWS OUT OF THE TUG OF WAR BETWEEN THE U.S. AND IRAQ." Another official told me, "I think Powell and [U.N. Ambassador John] Negroponte aren't worried about his doing more damage. He's out of the picture for now." But Annan advisers say that if the State Department believes this, the United States is mistakenly presuming on his friendship once again. With or without a new U.N. resolution, inspectors will return to Iraq. Inevitably, Saddam will thwart their work and the crisis will build. At that point, Annan's advisers say, he might try another last-ditch effort at preventing war. And if the United States and Britain strike without the Security Council's blessing, he will bemoan the violation of international law. "It's his constitutional obligation to promote peace," says Tharoor. If the Bushies want to truly understand Annan, they should read Shawcross's book Deliver Us From Evil. Even though Shawcross intended to produce a hagiography of the secretary-general, he couldn't help but convey some telling details. Just as Butler described, Shawcross shows that Annan has never had his heart in the anti-Saddam crusade, being much more concerned with ending sanctions and keeping the peace. ("He has a totally different view of Iraq from the United States," says A. Peter Burgleigh, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the 1998 crisis.) When Annan traveled to Baghdad in February 1998, he joined Saddam in the Republican Presidential Palace to smoke Cuban cigars. Annan, according to the Shawcross account, showered Saddam with flattery. As Shawcross later recounted the conversation, Annan told Saddam, "You're a builder. You built modern Iraq. It was destroyed once. You've rebuilt it. Do you want to destroy it again?" During the conversation, Saddam took notes on a yellow pad and never looked Annan in the eyes. When Saddam didn't respond, Annan escalated the flattery. "You've taken some courageous decisions," he continued. Too bad the same cannot be said of Annan more often.

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