Annan's roots are key to his U.N. success Secretary-General understands Third World in ways others can't

March 22, 1998|By PHYLLIS BENNIS

Kofi Annan gets a lot of press for being polite to Washington policymakers. The reality is that the United Nations secretary-general is a far tougher diplomat and significantly more accountable to the developing countries of the Third World, than he gets credit for.

Even when Annan is forced to give in to U.S. pressure, he demands - and gets - something in return. In Geneva last week, Annan for the first time cited the U.S. version, rather than the official U.N. language, of what Iraq must do to end the economic sanctions. (Washington wants Iraq to implement a whole range of demands, including reparations, returning Kuwaiti prisoners while the U.N. resolution links the sanctions only to allowing inspections and destroying Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.)

But in what appears to be a quid pro quo, the U.N. chief won silent acquiescence for his Middle East peace mission that would likely have sparked harsh U.S. condemnation only a few weeks ago. Annan said he was going to the region "to listen," but the very fact of his high-profile visit to Israel, Palestine and Lebanon at a time of serious stalemate in the peace process, stands as a direct challenge to Washington's effort to exclude all other international players from Middle East diplomacy.

There is little question that Annan's tactical skill was not solely responsible for the U.N.-Iraq agreement that averted (at least for the moment) a campaign of U.S. airstrikes against Iraq. The ultimate decisions were made in Washington and Baghdad. But it was Kofi Annan who pulled it off. And whatever future complications may ensue, the pragmatic Ghanaian succeeded where few others might have had a chance. Much of his success could be traced to exactly the qualities that Annan's Washington supporters apparently missed when he was presented as the U.S. favorite to replace the supposedly anti-reform Boutros Boutros-Ghali. It's said that Annan was hand-picked by Secretary State Madeleine Albright. Within a month after taking office in early 1997, he captivated Washington; he dazzled Western leaders at the Davos economic summit; and he had a celebrated coffee with Jesse Helms. Beltway policy makers assumed his low-key style reflected a malleable, soft, generally pro-U.S. core. They were wrong.

Annan's success in Baghdad - as well as the breadth of his global popularity - are rooted in the fact that he is African, a man of the Third World and despite Albright's great expectations, he clearly does not believe that Washington is always right. He does indeed speak softly - but the big diplomatic stick he carried to Baghdad was not simply the armada of U.S. aircraft carriers, it was also his understanding, rooted in his own history, of how issues of power, persuasion and humiliation succeed or fail in the Third World. He understood the necessity of treating the Iraqi leadership with respect - despite their violations of U.N. resolutions. Annan convinced Saddam Hussein, face-to-face, that the Iraqi leader had to abandon his demand for a time limit on inspections of his most secret sites. The U.N. chief was able to reach agreement and win Hussein's signature by, among other things, including in the final language the U.N.'s written commitment to "respect the sovereignty ... of Iraq."

Now in theory, everything the United Nations does, from the Charter down to the most technical resolution, is supposed to be rooted in the twin (if sometimes contradictory) pillars of human rights and national sovereignty for member states. But Annan understood Saddam Hussein's and Iraq's political-cultural need for an explicit U.N. commitment to respect Iraq as the trade-off for accepting thoroughly humiliating conditions. Despite his three decades in largely European-dominated provinces of the United Nations, Annan retains an understanding of the magnitude of national honor, largely rooted in the anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s and 1960s in Africa, the Arab world, parts of Asia and elsewhere in the Third World. While Iraq's sovereignty should not be a contentious issue, it is doubtful that a European-oriented secretary general, whatever his or her actual country of origin, would have grasped the pivotal necessity of including the language need to win Baghdad's approval.

In traveling to Baghdad to meet personally with Saddam Hussein, and in committing the U.N. and its member states to respect from Iraq as a nation, Annan positioned his organization back at the center of the Middle East crisis management. Further, by requesting "advice" and "guidance" from, but not necessarily unanimous prior approval by the Security Council, the secretary-general defended the breadth of the world organization. The United States wanted to keep the Iraq crisis confined to the Security Council where U.S., French, British, Russian and Chinese veto power distorts any semblance of democracy. Annan's initiative was a reminder that all members of the U.N. should have a role to play.

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