Failure to stop war in Iraq haunts Annan as he exits

Worst time of his career, says departing U.N. chief

December 31, 2006|By Maggie Farley | Maggie Farley,LOS ANGLES TIMES

UNITED NATIONS -- Secretary-General Kofi Annan says that he will keep working right up until midnight today, when his 10-year tenure as the world's top diplomat officially ends. But he has begun reflecting on his achievements, frustrations and failures as a leader who embodies the world's ideals, and as a man who often could not escape his limitations to make them a reality.

Although sometimes it is debated whether Annan, 68, was more "secretary" or "general," he was more of an idealist than either. He would like to be remembered, he said this month, as the leader who pushed the world to agree to intervene to stop genocide, and to try to cut poverty in half. He sought to make the world body about people, not just geopolitics.

But he was often overwhelmed by the details of managing a gargantuan organization that kept the peace in 18 countries and once ran the entire economy of Iraq. His management lapses were blamed for the subversion of the $64-billion oil-for-food program in Iraq, as well as a wave of corruption scandals and sexual exploitation by peacekeepers under his watch.

Recognizing the need to update the 60-year-old institution, Annan proposed sweeping reforms that would make the United Nations better able to deal with the new threats and challenges of the 21st century. But he was stymied by a group of developing countries, which saw the changes as a loss of power, and by the U.S., which had its own vision to revamp the world body.

Annan, the son of a chieftain from Ghana, was christened "Anthony" but was known by the name Kofi, which means "born on Friday." He joined the bottom ranks of the United Nations in 1962 and didn't mean to stay longer than four years, he said. But he quietly rose through the institution to lead the peacekeeping department. In December 1996, the Clinton administration pushed him as its candidate to replace Boutros-Boutros Ghali, the outspoken Egyptian secretary-general it deemed a liability to U.S. interests.

Annan was chosen because he was an African who knew the U.N. system and had proved that he was pragmatic, effective and open to working with the United States in his role overseeing peacekeepers in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Haiti. But most important, he did not have a political agenda or a big ego that could put him in conflict with the U.S. By the end of Annan's decade, however, he grew to be a quiet but compelling challenger to the United States.

Annan's first five years in the wood-paneled office at the top of the U.N. headquarters were a honeymoon of sorts. Annan's manner is gentle and nonconfrontational, and he is so soft-spoken that he can hardly be heard without a microphone. He and his Swedish wife, Nane, the elegant niece of Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg, traveled around the U.S. and the world, giving a human face to an otherwise impersonal institution and imparting Annan's belief that every person had equal rights, and a government's duty was to protect them.

For championing human rights and development, and "for bringing new life to the organization," Annan and the U.N. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001.

But the second half of his tenure would be much darker.

The Sept. 11 attacks made the Bush administration more determined to protect its national security -- but, Annan later argued, at the expense of multilateralism and human rights. In 2002, President Bush challenged the Security Council to confront Iraq or stand aside, and while the U.S. attempted for six months to gain the U.N.'s stamp of legitimacy for its long-planned invasion, it ended up going into Iraq without it.

Annan cited the failure to stop the Iraq war as the worst time of his career.

Annan's career and the image of the United Nations would sustain another heavy blow in 2003 with revelations of payoffs and subversion of the oil-for-food program. Saddam Hussein had constructed a huge kickback scheme to siphon billions from the U.N.-run aid program; Security Council members, including the U.S., quietly allowed the diversions, considering it the cost of keeping weapons materials out of Hussein's hands.

An 18-month investigation led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker found that Annan was responsible for grave mismanagement, and charged several staff members with conflict of interest, yet found "no evidence" of Annan's wrongdoing.

Maggie Farley writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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