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America's Man at the United Nations

New York Times, 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 Iraq situation.

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 redrethis, 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 Swicompany 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 direction.

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."


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