- The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power by James Traub
Bloomsbury, 442 pp, £20.00, November 2006, ISBN 0 7475 8087 1
- Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War by Stanley Meisler
Wiley, 384 pp, £19.99, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 471 78744 0
Of all postwar institutions in the public eye, the United Nations has probably yielded the poorest literature. With the exception of two lucid studies of its foundation, Robert Hildebrand’s Dumbarton Oaks (1990) and Stephen Schlesinger’s Act of Creation (2003), each the work of a serious diplomatic historian, little or nothing of analytic interest exists about the organisation, which has proved an intellectual sink-hole, down which swirl the drearily self-serving memoirs of its one-time functionaries and mind-numbing pieties from assorted well-wishers in the universities. There is a reason for the peculiar deadness of this output. The UN is a political entity without any independent will. If we set aside its specialised agencies, most of which perform useful practical services of one sort or another, the core of the institution – the General Assembly and the Security Council – is a legitimating, not a policy-making, apparatus. Decisions reached by the organisation are in essence embellishments of the relationships of power operative at any given time. Virtually by definition, where legitimation alone is at stake, the quotient of euphemism and mystification on all sides will be very high. So, predictably enough, it has been with the United Nations.
Readers approaching James Traub’s and Stanley Meisler’s books thus have reason to expect the worst. In some ways the expectation is amply fulfilled, but in others the two books – each by a journalist – cast more light on the UN than is normally allowed to fall on it. The purpose of both is straightforward: to offer an oleograph of the former secretary-general for public devotion. Here The Best Intentions is unbeatable. Kofi Annan, Traub writes, is ‘the gentle, kindly African with the silver goatee and the rueful, yellowing eyes’, ‘the UN official non-pareil’, ‘perhaps the most popular figure ever to occupy the office’, embodying ‘modest charm and moral gravity’, ‘the most gracious of men’, who – not least – would ‘usually greet me with a big smile and a roundhouse handshake, a kind of domesticated soul gesture’ and ‘rarely failed to ask after my wife, my son and my parents’.
Yet modest as Annan is, he courageously ‘embraced celebrity’, becoming ‘something quite new in the history of the UN, a spokesman for mankind who looked wonderful in a tuxedo’, plunging into ‘the social whirl’ with a wife who – ‘like him, quiet, composed, profoundly gracious’ – had ‘the same aura of simple goodness’. Together they offered a captivating spectacle: ‘Kofi and Nane, both enormously attractive and disarmingly modest, the one short and black and the other tall and blonde, made for a dazzling couple: they projected a kind of moral glamour’ (sic). Meisler too dwells on Annan’s status as a ‘social star of New York society’, dining and partying three times a week. But disavowing psychology, he otherwise makes do with such comparatively humdrum passages as:
I tried to analyse why the secretary-general’s words so often seem eloquent. He speaks simply in short sentences that sparkle with clarity and never jar because of a slip in grammar. His measured tones have a slight cadence. His use of words is subtle yet careful. He never postures. And, most important, he projects an air of sincerity that could not possibly be faked.
Fawning of this sort is no doubt in part payment for access. Annan invited Traub to sit in on his meetings and travel with him on his trips, speaking to him ‘regularly and candidly’. Meisler tells us that the secretary-general ‘helped me immensely by passing the word to associates and friends that this project has his blessing’, though fifteen years of intimacy with his press officer, Fred Eckhard – unique among his kind as one who was ‘completely incapable of spinning’, knowing ‘only how to hand out the truth in all its nuances’ (sic) – was of no small assistance too. But when one ventures further into each work it becomes plain that such effusions are also there in compensation for what each author is obliged en route to divulge. In effect, the further the image from reality, the more strained and cloying it becomes.
The facts of Annan’s career are clear enough, and in practice neither writer casts much of a veil over them. The academically dim son of a manager for Unilever in colonial Ghana, he was spotted as likely material by a scout for the Ford Foundation and dispatched to Minnesota to study economics at a local college. There, Traub explains, he learned something of more lasting value: Annan ‘had become persuaded of the merits of capitalism, and of the American way generally’. Perhaps with this in mind, the Carnegie Foundation got him to a graduate institute in Geneva, where he failed to take any degree, leaving instead for a low-level job in the World Health Organisation. For the next twenty years, he gradually moved up the bureaucratic ladder in the UN system, with a stint at MIT to acquire management lore, finally landing a post in the ‘administrative management services’ department of the Secretariat in New York in the early 1980s. From there, shortly before the Clinton administration came to office, he edged his way into the number two position in the department for ‘special political affairs’, with subordinate responsibility for the Middle East and Africa. When Washington pressed for UN troops to be sent into Somalia, Boutros Boutros-Ghali opposed the mission. Annan took the American line. His superior, Marrack Goulding, was duly removed, and Annan put in charge of all peacekeeping operations, as they would now be called, in February 1993.
A year later, in January 1994, he received an urgent cable from Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian lieutenant general in charge of the UN force in Rwanda, warning him of the impending slaughter of the Tutsi population, and explaining that he planned to intervene by raiding Hutu arms caches. Not only did Annan refuse to allow any measures to be taken to stop the unleashing of genocide, he ensured that the fax informing him of what was in store did not reach the Security Council. Some eight hundred thousand Tutsi died in the ensuing massacre. Measured by consequences, the culpability of Kurt Waldheim, exposed for concealing his service as a German intelligence officer in the Balkans, was puny by comparison. Annan remained quite unmoved, until it became too impolitic to deny any remorse. The extent of his contrition is summed up by all he would say to Traub, after a long pause, about his part in the fate of Rwanda: ‘In retrospect, and this is also the culture of the house, we should have used the media more aggressively, and exposed the situation for them to see. Of course, at that time this organisation was media-shy.’ Translated: don’t blame me, I’m the one who became media-friendly. As banalisations go, Hannah Arendt might have had some words for it.
Vol. 29 No. 10 · 24 May 2007
Perry Anderson’s review of two books on Kofi Annan is a classic example of conspiracy theory (LRB, 10 May). That is, it seeks to explain events by postulating conscious collusion among those who played a part in them, and in the process arrives at a narrative which is largely unrecognisable to the actors themselves. Certainly I do not recognise myself as the kind of thought-policeman he describes, brought in to impose the editorial line of the Financial Times and, in March 1999, standing over a helpless secretary-general until he agreed, reluctantly, to issue a statement legitimising Nato’s bombing of Yugoslavia.
In fact, Annan had been on record since the previous summer as thinking both that the international community should not allow a repetition in Kosovo of the ethnic cleansing that had taken place in Bosnia, and that any decision to intervene militarily should be taken by the Security Council. As often happens in real life, the actual course of events placed these two opinions in tension, if not contradiction, with each other – and this tension was inevitably apparent in the statement that Annan issued. As a middle-ranking adviser, I did not – and could not have – put pressure on him to say anything he did not believe.
I cite this example because it concerns me personally. But Anderson’s whole article is riddled with forced and distorted interpretations. Uninformed readers of his one-paragraph summary of the Oil for Food allegations would get the impression that the Volcker Commission suspected, but could not prove, that Annan played a part in awarding inspection contracts in Iraq to Cotecna, a company that had employed his son Kojo in West Africa. In fact the committee found unequivocally that he had played no part. Where they decided to accept his word, in the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, was in his statement that he did not even know Cotecna was bidding for the contract in question until after it had been awarded. Why exactly Cotecna continued to pay Kojo substantial ‘non-compete’ fees for five years after he ceased working for them remains unclear. But the committee did not challenge Kofi Annan’s statement that he was ‘surprised and disappointed’ to learn of these payments when they became public.
Anderson’s broader points about the UN – that the US has played a major part in shaping its structure and decisions throughout its history, but had greater difficulty doing so during the Cold War – are truisms. A world organisation is unlikely to achieve much without the active engagement and co-operation of the world’s most powerful state. Annan understood this, and strove to overcome differences between the US and the rest of the membership. That was never easy and since 2003 has become more or less impossible.
Vol. 29 No. 11 · 7 June 2007
With the exception of Sergio Vieira de Mello, those cited in Perry Anderson’s article on the UN are still alive and can answer his charges themselves (LRB, 10 May). Not so Vieira de Mello, for whom we worked at the time in question as, respectively, executive assistant and senior adviser. Anderson correctly says that Vieira de Mello was ‘reluctant to go’ to Iraq early in the summer of 2003 as the special representative of the UN secretary-general. ‘But an audience was arranged with Bush,’ Anderson claims, ‘and Annan dispatched him.’ We do not believe such an arm-twisting meeting ever took place. It would have to have been very secretive indeed. There was a meeting with Bush just before the American invasion. We both attended it (and subsequent meetings that week with Condoleezza Rice, Richard Armitage and others) and at no point was a role for Sergio as a special representative discussed.
Anderson describes Sergio’s job in Baghdad as being ‘to create a network of collaborators for the occupation’. This is maybe more a question of interpretation than of fact. But that was certainly not the role Sergio (or the rest of us) intended to play. His main activity before his death was broadening the political discussion both within Iraq – partly by bringing in parties the occupying power couldn’t or wouldn’t talk to – and abroad by extending it to include the states neighbouring Iraq. In all these endeavours, Sergio was motivated by a desire to ensure that Iraqis had a meaningful say, rather than a purely symbolic role, in determining the future of their country. He was also striving to bring about an early end to the occupation, which he had described on the record as untenable. Curiously, having demeaned UN efforts in Iraq, Anderson seems to acknowledge the importance of the organisation’s work when he describes Sergio’s murder – 21 other UN colleagues and associates were also killed that day – as being ‘politically the most effective single strike of the war’. But this is a grudging admission, wrapped up as it is in the callous suggestion that Sergio’s work in Iraq ‘inevitably’ made him a target for killing.
Jonathan Prentice and Scott Malcomson
Geneva and Brooklyn
Perry Anderson’s analysis of the career of Kofi Annan is also a melancholy indictment of those who preceded Annan in that now almost meaningless post: Trygve Lie, Dag Hammarskjöld and Kurt Waldheim in particular. Anderson doesn’t mention the charges made against Hammarskjöld’s UN on the grounds of its shameful complicity in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, by Conor Cruise O’Brien, who had been Hammarskjöld’s special representative. O’Brien’s To Katanga and Back is a masterly and unusually frank account of Hammarskjöld’s abysmal failure to protect a democratically elected leader. But Hammarskjöld, a distinguished economist and scholar, was only a faulty would-be saint; Lie, Annan and Waldheim demeaned the office they held.
K. Vela Velupillai
Girton College, Cambridge
Vol. 29 No. 12 · 21 June 2007
The two letters from – recently departed – Anglo-American functionaries of the UN (Edward Mortimer, Letters, 24 May, and Jonathan Prentice and Scott Malcomson, Letters, 7 June) are good illustrations of the characterisation of it in the article of which they complain. Mortimer pretends to think that any documented criticism of either Annan or himself is a mere conspiracy theory. Neither the term ‘conspiracy’, nor any analogue to it, appears in what I wrote, which makes it clear that the American grip on the UN – the UK as its liege – is historical and structural. Not that it would be difficult to use another language. Here is how James Traub and Stanley Meisler, biographers who vie to outdo each other in admiration for Annan, describe the way he became secretary-general. Traub: ‘By the fall of 1995, leading White House and State Department officials were convinced that Boutros-Ghali could not be permitted to serve a second term. A small group began working on a plan, dubbed Operation Orient Express, to oust him; in order to keep the plot secret, nothing was committed to paper for months.’ Meisler: ‘In early 1996 Albright formed a small group of conspirators to help her get rid of Boutros-Ghali. The cabal comprised James Rubin and two members of the National Security Council, Richard Clarke and Michael Sheehan.’
No doubt Mortimer’s materialisation as amanuensis for Annan was equally transparent, but it was his role in New York, not how he got there, with which I was concerned. Readers can take his assurance that he was merely an inconspicuous ‘middle-ranking adviser’ in the same spirit as his puzzlement as to ‘why exactly Cotecna continued to pay Kojo’ – Annan’s son – ‘substantial “non-compete” fees for five years after he ceased working for them’. It is good, however, to see Mortimer back in the pages of the Financial Times. There, after explaining that it might be ‘unfair’ that Paul Wolfowitz should have to step down as head of the World Bank, he urged Bush to appoint Blair as its new president: a ‘larger-than-life’ leader ‘still at the height of his powers’, who is ‘well known’ for his ‘strong interest’ in the ‘welfare of the world’s poor’. The slums of Basra must be disappointed that this ‘imaginative proposal’, as Mortimer described his idea, came to nothing.
Inadvertently, Prentice and Malcomson’s letter sheds further light on the workings of the UN under Kofi Annan. For it appears that Sergio Vieira’s own closest assistants were kept in the dark about his dealings prior to setting off for Baghdad. The meeting between an initially resistant Vieira and George Bush, of which they doubt the existence, is recorded by Traub. For UN cover in Iraq, the administration, Traub writes,
wanted Vieira de Mello, whom US officials had worked with in trouble spots all over the world. Condoleezza Rice asked him to come to see her at the White House, and after pressing him to take the job, she brought him across the hall to see President Bush, who repeated the request. Vieira de Mello relented. Annan asked him to serve as his special representative for six months. Vieira de Mello offered three months, tops. They compromised at four. The special representative reached Baghdad on 1 June.
As for what Vieira proceeded to do when he got there, Traub could not be more explicit: ‘Over the course of six weeks, he persuaded reluctant leadership figures to identify themselves with the American regime.’ If his assistants were unaware even of who picked him for the job, it is little surprise they remain bemused about what it amounted to. Scott Malcomson, predictably enough a journalist for the New York Times, evidently put his reporter’s instincts aside while on secondment.
Vol. 29 No. 13 · 5 July 2007
I was glad to learn that Perry Anderson’s only source for the alleged second meeting between Sergio Vieira de Mello and President Bush was James Traub’s recent book on Kofi Annan and the United Nations (Letters, 21 June). (Readers may recall that my colleague Jonathan Prentice and I were at the first, and we believe only, meeting between Sergio and Bush.) I am also a little surprised that Anderson so harshly criticised Traub’s book in his review, while, I now gather, relying on a few sentences in it as the sole basis for some very rough judgments on Sergio and the work he was carrying out before his murder. In any case, Traub has assured me repeatedly that he accepts, barring further evidence, that the arm-twisting meeting did not take place and that his account will be corrected in future editions.
Vol. 29 No. 15 · 2 August 2007
I was the spokesman for the UN special representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and did all the press briefings after the bombing of our headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August 2003. I think Perry Anderson is too hard on Vieira de Mello, and not hard enough on those in the UN responsible for sending more than five hundred staff members into the midst of a conflict they could do little to help (LRB, 10 May). Aside from the murderers themselves, the responsibility for the death of Sergio and 21 of his colleagues lies with the permanent member states of the Security Council and with Kofi Annan, all of whom were keen to make amends for the UN’s refusal to authorise the invasion of Iraq.
Many on Vieira de Mello’s staff in Baghdad were worried that he would be seen to be supporting the occupation because of his high-profile efforts to persuade prominent Iraqis to join the US-appointed Governing Council. I pointed out to him that there was particular concern that members of the council were being chosen on the basis of their ethnic group (the US hoped to win Shia support for the occupation by disenfranchising the Sunni Arabs). After the Governing Council was established, Sergio no longer had a meaningful role. Paul Bremer, the US proconsul, ignored him, and there wasn’t anything Sergio could do about it: no special representative in UN history had been given such a subservient mandate.
Before Scott Malcomson makes poor James Traub delete any reference to the late Sergio Vieira de Mello’s second meeting with George Bush from future editions of his book, he might do a bit more fact-checking (Letters, 5 July). I was told about this meeting a few months after Vieira de Mello’s death by Shashi Tharoor, a novelist and UN hierarch. The occasion was a public discussion in Berlin in September 2003. Tharoor and I had vigorously debated the UN’s role and he had put up a robust defence of the institution. At the lunch that followed I asked him why Sergio, an intelligent man, had agreed to conduct the clean-up operation in Baghdad. Tharoor was blunt: ‘I’m afraid it was a combination of arm-twisting and flattery. Bush called him into the White House and appealed to his vanity. The poor man agreed to go.’ Traub is not the only source for the second meeting after all.
Vol. 29 No. 16 · 16 August 2007
Tariq Ali places words in my mouth that I never spoke (Letters, 2 August). Not only am I unaware of a so-called ‘second meeting’ between Sergio Vieira de Mello and George W. Bush, but I simply would not have spoken of my friend in that way, and that too just a few weeks (not months, as Ali says) after his death. Sergio had told me of a request from Kofi Annan, his boss and mentor, that he felt he could not refuse; Annan had wanted him to go to Baghdad for six months, he had reluctantly offered two, and the pair had compromised on four. That the US, and notably Condoleezza Rice, wanted Sergio to be the UN representative was widely rumoured, but I have no reason to believe that he was directly pressed by Washington (even less by President Bush personally). Certainly Annan bitterly blamed himself for sending Sergio to his death. Knowing Sergio as I did for a quarter-century, I believe he was impelled by the sense of duty that had always characterised his willingness to take on hazardous and far-flung assignments, often at a moment’s notice. I would be grateful if those who wish to sully his memory would not ascribe words and opinions to me that I have never uttered.
Vol. 29 No. 17 · 6 September 2007
Shashi Tharoor protests too much (Letters, 16 August). My recollection of our conversation is unchanged, perhaps because I have no desire to become the secretary-general of the UN.