Kofi Annan’s Interventions
NYRB reviews the book Interventions: A Life in War and Peace by Kofi Annan with Nader Mousavizadeh, and in the best tradition of its reviews, summarizes the book while at once making you want to go and read it:
Realists dismiss the UN as “a political entity without any independent will,” to use Perry Anderson’s phrase, but they miss the power that flows from moral prestige. To paraphrase Stalin’s remark about the pope, Annan understood that the UN had no divisions, but it was the bearer of hopes, and in this lay such power as the secretary-general enjoyed. He was the most successful holder of the office since Dag Hammarskjöld in leveraging the world’s hopes into personal moral influence.
But there remains a mystery about his prestige. Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Václav Havel acquired theirs by standing up to tyrants. Kofi Annan acquired his by talking to them. Prestige acquired in this manner is bound to be ambiguous and to leave a complex legacy.
Annan’s enduring authority is also perplexing because his past won’t leave him in peace. To use Samantha Power’s cruel words, “his name would appear in the history books beside the two defining genocidal crimes of the second half of the twentieth century,” Rwanda and Srebrenica.4 His memoir is called Interventions, as if to recognize that his public career will always be judged by his part in the UN’s most ill-fated operations.
In confronting these incidents, he and his cowriter and former aide, Nader Mousavizadeh, have decided that when a reputation is under scrutiny, candor is the best defense. The result is a resolute, detailed, and unflinching review of his most difficult hours. They quote in full the now notorious fax that the UN force commander in Rwanda, Romeo Dallaire, sent in January 1994 to UN headquarters seeking Annan’s authorization for military action to arrest prospective genocidaires. Annan turned Dallaire down, and neither he nor the secretary-general at the time, Boutros Boutros Ghali, ever communicated Dallaire’s request for action to the Security Council.
Dallaire, Power, Philip Gourevitch, and other close observers of the Rwanda catastrophe believe that preventive military action by the UN at that point might have averted the horrendous events that unfolded months later in April, May, and June, leaving 800,000 people dead. Annan’s answer to these charges—it has not varied in a decade—recalls that the Americans had just been driven from Somalia after the disastrous Blackhawk Down episode and Dallaire’s proposed intervention risked a similar debacle.
The same dismaying faith in the deterrent force of good intentions fatally shaped UN policy over the safe havens in Bosnia. Annan was in charge of UN peacekeeping in this period and watched helplessly as governments in the Security Council crafted mandates and deployed troops that could not possibly protect the safe havens if they came under determined attack. To his credit, Annan stood his ground. He told the Security Council that the safe havens could not be protected with anything less than an additional 32,000 troops. It ignored the advice, leaving civilians for a second time to be protected by “presence” rather than forces authorized and willing to fight. Eight thousand civilians in Srebrenica paid with their lives for this fatal illusion about the force of the UN’s moral prestige.
When the US finally decided to do something about the slaughter in Bosnia in August 1995, Annan was helpful in overcoming UN resistance to the bombing of Serb targets. Within weeks American air power, coupled with assistance to the Croats, turned the tide against the Serbs and brought them to the negotiations at Dayton.
Even an administration bent on a unilateral invasion of Iraq felt obliged to send Colin Powell to make its case for war to the UN. The most vivid pages of Interventions describe the foreign ministers’ lunch after Powell’s presentation when he faced the disbelieving Dominique de Villepin of France and Igor Ivanov of Russia. After assuring them and Annan that he personally hated war—“I’ve lost friends in war; I’ve fought in two wars; I’ve commanded wars”—Powell then asserted that he didn’t “accept the premise that wars always lead to bad results.” At this point, Joschka Fischer of Germany chimed in, “And we are the best example of that.”
The scene captures politics at the top as Annan lived it, but it also encapsulates what the UN is actually for. It is the forum that forces the powerful to earn legitimacy by persuading the weak that their cause is just. Powell was still seeking that legitimacy six weeks after the invasion itself when he came to Annan’s office with a team of briefers to prove that the US invaders had found Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. A troubled secretary of state was still looking for absolution. “Kofi, they’ve made an honest man of me,” he exclaimed. Annan and his team remained stonily unconvinced by the evidence.
Colin Powell’s reputation never recovered from Iraq and it proved a turning point for Annan’s as well. For five years, he fought to keep the UN at the center of the diplomatic dance with Saddam, while seeking to guarantee that if force was used, it would be approved through the Security Council. But he had already created a precedent for unilateral action, having given his blessing to the NATO operation in Kosovo, launched without Security Council approval. Now, with the Security Council flatly refusing to endorse an invasion of Iraq, he concluded that the American invasion was “illegal.” The Bush administration never forgave him for that judgment. It ignored the UN, plunged into the invasion, and Annan was left to draw slim consolation from the knowledge that he and his organization had refused to legitimize a debacle.
In his final two years as secretary-general, Annan fought to salvage his reputation. He took responsibility for the abject management failures and outright thievery that had characterized Oil for Food and sought to regain the political initiative by launching a frenetic attempt to reform the institution. He wanted to enlarge the Security Council, create a peace-building commission, and replace the discredited Human Rights Commission with a Human Rights Council. The effort was worthy but the moment for reform had passed. By then, the US had sent the obstreperous ambassador John Bolton to the UN as a sign of its displeasure and as a sop to Bush’s right wing. Annan discovered that his own prestige was too depleted to achieve significant reform. A secretary-generalship that had begun with hope in 1996 ended in frustration in 2006.
When you recall how Annan’s secretary-generalship ended, you begin to understand his hunger to remain in the public eye, to mediate a political settlement in Kenya following disputed elections in 2008, and finally to find peace in Syria. These quests for peace are something more than an experienced mediator’s desire to stay busy. In some deep way, given what he has seen, lived through, and taken responsibility for, they can be taken as a conscientious man’s quest for redemption.