America's Man at the United Nations
New York Times Op-Ed December 4, 2004
THE growing demands that Kofi Annan resign as secretary general of
the United Nations are preposterous. For him to do so would be extremely
damaging not only to his organization but also to the United States.
I say this as someone who strongly supported the American-led effort to
overthrow Saddam Hussein; as someone who, despite the heartbreaking
mistakes, still supports the coalition's attempt to build a decent society
in Iraq. I also think that the United Nations has repeatedly failed the
Iraqi people. But I know that Kofi Annan feels the same way. Years ago,
when I was writing a book about the United Nations, he told me that in
1992, he had warned the newly elected secretary general, Boutros
Boutros-Ghali, that the United Nations had to do far more to resolve the
The situation was this: After the Persian Gulf war, the Security Council
had imposed sanctions on Iraq until it could verify that Saddam Hussein had
disposed of all his weapons of mass destruction. He refused to cooperate,
so sanctions remained, impoverishing and starving ordinary Iraqis, but not
the Baathist elite.
To redress this, in 1996 the Security Council created the oil-for-food
program. Over the next six years, the program undoubtedly helped keep alive
millions of Iraqis. But, as was shown in the recent report by Charles
Duelfer, the Bush administration's top weapons investigator in Iraq, the
opportunities for corruption were immense and Saddam Hussein took full
advantage of them.
Who was responsible? Not Kofi Annan. The United Nations officials who ran
the program reported not to him but directly to the Security Council and to
the oversight committee created by Resolution 661, which in 1990 authorized
the removal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait by force. Why did the Security
Council members, particularly the United States, not do more at the time?
It is alleged that some of the United Nations officials in charge of the
program may have been corrupt. If true, this is deplorable and they must be
brought to account. But again, member states were responsible for
oversight, not Mr. Annan.
Now it has been revealed that Mr. Annan's son, Kojo, received money from a
Swiss company involved with the oil-for-food program for years after he
told his father he had severed all connections. This has caused Mr. Annan
obvious grief, but is what we used to call a "Billy Carter problem" - the
sins of a relative being visited on a high official. Kojo Annan's actions
should not be cited, as some right-wing Americans are doing, to assert that
the secretary general should resign. Kofi Annan is too honest, and too
intelligent, to have influenced the procurement process in favor of a firm
that had an association with his son.
In any case, far greater corruption was being practiced by many member
states themselves. The Duelfer report showed that Russia, China and France
were bending the rules as far as they possibly could in order to secure
huge contracts for their companies. Kickbacks were flowing in every
So why did Saddam Hussein's enemies, particularly senior American
officials, not deal more robustly with the miasma that was developing?
Part of the reason was that Iraqi propaganda claiming that sanctions were
killing millions of Iraqi children was extremely effective, and the
Security Council members were therefore very anxious that the oil-for-food
program continue. At the same time, of course, while everyone knew there
was some corruption, no one knew the immense scale of it.
In the end, one must look at the entirety of Mr. Annan's record. The United
States was correct in 1996 when it denied Mr. Boutros-Ghali a second term
and helped elect Kofi Annan. Mr. Boutros-Ghali was a poor secretary general
and was peevishly anti-American. Kofi Annan was a longtime admirer of the
United States, and he quickly restored the United Nations' strained
relations with Washington - even making peace with Senator Jesse Helms, the
Republican most hostile to the organization.
Since then, he has done a great deal to restore morale within the
organization and to raise its prestige; it was fitting that in 2001 he, and
the United Nations, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
However, the war in Iraq, opposed by a majority of the Security Council,
has put him in an impossible position. And many of his finest staff members
were murdered by a suicide bomber in Iraq in the summer of 2003, and others
have been reluctant to return.
Yes, he made a mistake recently by criticizing the American mission to
clear Falluja of its terrorist nests. But at a time when the United Nations
is trying to ease the American burden in Iraq, it would be unwise for
Washington to have a falling-out with the organization. Further, Mr. Annan
is about to start a serious effort at reforming the United Nations itself,
along the lines of the report from an in-house panel released this week.
Iraq remains a deeply divisive issue. The Bush administration knows this,
and should be doing everything to engage the world, not to diminish a man
whom millions around the world see as their champion. If Kofi Annan is
forced to leave by an American claque, the results will be catastrophic not
just for the United Nations but also for Iraq - and the Bush
administration's hopes of a successful foreign policy in its second term.
William Shawcross is the author, most recently, of "Allies: The U.S.,
Britain, Europe and the War in Iraq."