The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power 
by James Traub.
Bloomsbury, 442 pp., £20, November 2006, 0 7475 8087 1
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Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War 
by Stanley Meisler.
Wiley, 384 pp., £19.99, January 2007, 978 0 471 78744 0
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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.

Far from being an impediment, however, Annan’s performance over Rwanda was in a way a condition of his further ascent. The Clinton administration, gearing up for intervention in the Balkans, was determined not to allow distractions over killings in Africa to deflect public attention from Bosnia, where the scale of death, though high, was neither proportionately nor absolutely near that in Rwanda (strategic interest, not to speak of skin colour, made the region altogether another matter). ‘Be careful,’ a Pentagon memorandum about Rwanda warned. ‘Legal [department] at State [department] was worried about this yesterday – Genocide finding could commit [the US government] to actually “do” something.’ Clinton and Madeleine Albright, naturally, did nothing. When, on the other hand, they pressed the button for action in Bosnia in the summer of 1995, Annan sprang to life, and at Albright’s request – without consulting Boutros-Ghali as secretary-general – authorised Nato to start heavy bombing of Serb positions. This was the alacrity that made him. Boutros-Ghali, although a former foreign minister of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, one of America’s most loyal client states, had riled Washington by an increasing lack of deference, dragging his feet over Bosnia and talking too much about Africa. By the time his mandate came up for renewal the following year, the Clinton administration was determined to oust him, and parachute Annan into his place. The most valuable sections of Traub’s book, as of Meisler’s, describe how this was done.

Within a few months of Annan’s green light in Bosnia, a team of top officials in Washington, headed by Albright, was working on a secret plan for a coup at the UN, Operation Orient Express. As America’s designated candidate, Annan was party to the scheme. In the Security Council itself, Boutros-Ghali was supported by every member state, with the exception of the US, which vetoed him. Seven ballots and tireless pressure by Albright later, every state except France had realised, as Traub remarks, that ‘there was no percentage in blocking the will of such a powerful figure.’ Washington’s ability to call Russia to heel, bypassing its foreign minister for direct instructions to Yeltsin, on whom it could rely for submission, was decisive. Once the Russian vote had been pocketed, France caved in, and Annan was home and dry.

Satisfaction in Washington was unconcealed. In the imperative expressed by James Rubin, Albright’s assistant, the UN now had a secretary-general able ‘to understand the importance of co-operation with the world’s first power’. More pointedly still, another of the architects of Orient Express, the National Security Council officer Robert Orr, explained: ‘Very few secretaries-general had worked with the US military. Here we were in an era where the US military was going to be a big part of the equation. You needed a secretary-general who understands that the US military is not the enemy.’ Or more tersely: ‘Kofi could do it.’ Annan duly did it. When Nato launched its aerial attack on Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999, in patent violation of the UN Charter, the secretary-general, far from condemning the action of the US and its allies, informed the world that it was legitimate. For services like these – ‘he had courted the wrath of the developing world by rejecting anti-colonialism in favour of moral principles cherished in the West’ – he was much fêted and, not surprisingly, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The invasion of Iraq, however, would pose a more severe test. Annan had presided over the sanctions regime without a qualm and not demurred at Operation Desert Fox. When the Bush administration began its push for war with Resolution 1441, which declared Iraq in material breach of all past resolutions on its disarmament, Annan predictably swung into action to pressure all members of the Security Council to vote it in, personally phoning Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, to ensure that there would not be even a single abstention. Unanimity was secured, but a hitch arose at the next stage. The French told the White House that while they could not accept a second Security Council resolution explicitly authorising an attack on Iraq, which would implicate them, they had no objection to a US invasion based on an American interpretation of 1441 – the course that Cheney was urging within the administration. But Blair, who wanted to join in the attack, insisted that a second resolution was necessary to protect him from criticism at home, and got Colin Powell’s support for a futile attempt to circumvent a French veto in the Security Council. Such mutual hypocrisies put Annan in an awkward spot. Blessing the Balkan war was one thing: in 1999, the West was united in the attack on Yugoslavia. But now the West, to all appearances, was divided. What should he do? If only the French had come round, we learn, all might have been well. ‘He would have accepted, and perhaps even embraced,’ Traub tells us, ‘a resolution authorising war so long as the council was firmly united behind it.’ But unity was not forthcoming, and an embrace remained out of reach. Operation Iraqi Freedom rolled ahead. In March 2003, ‘Shock and Awe’ hit Baghdad.

Annan, aware that his inspectors had failed to come up with any evidence of WMD in Iraq, the pretext for war, and that his own position would be weakened by an attack that opened up a line of division between the US and leading Western allies, indicated his unhappiness at this unfortunate turn of events, but refrained from condemning the invasion – which, having endorsed an identical bypassing of the Security Council over Kosovo, he was anyway scarcely in a position to do. Once Iraq was conquered, however, he hastened to the assistance of the occupation, for which Bush and Blair wanted backdated cover from the UN. In May, at Annan’s urging, the Security Council ratified the Anglo-American seizure of Iraq, voting unanimously for Resolution 1483, which endorsed Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority, and pledged the UN to play a ‘vital role’, as requested by the White House and Downing Street, in helping it out. Condoleezza Rice and Powell had already chosen the functionary in the Secretariat they wanted for the job, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, its human rights commissioner. Vieira was reluctant to go, but an audience was arranged with Bush, and Annan dispatched him. On his arrival in Baghdad, Vieira’s task was to help Bremer arrange a puppet advisory body to give the Anglo-American armies a local façade. ‘Over the course of six weeks, he persuaded reluctant leadership figures to identify themselves with the American regime,’ and got Bremer ‘to change the name of the body to the more dignified Governing Council (even though it remained powerless)’. Traub goes on: ‘This was just what Annan had had in mind when he argued for a serious role for the UN.’

Inevitably, the bid to create a network of collaborators for the occupation made Vieira a target for retribution by the Iraqi resistance. In August, in politically the most effective single strike of the war, he and his staff were obliterated by a truck bomb. Annan, who had sent them to their deaths, did not flinch. To the incredulity even of intimates, and the fury of subordinates, so determined was he to do his duty by Bush and Blair that he refused to withdraw the UN mission from Baghdad. It took another bombing, a month later, for him to change his mind and pull UN personnel out of the country. But his commitment to providing cover for the occupation had not altered. Within a few months Lakhdar Brahimi – Algeria’s foreign minister at the height of the voided elections and military repression of 1991-92 – was dispatched to Iraq as Annan’s special representative, in the hope that he could repeat his performance in stitching together a client regime for the US in Afghanistan. Brahimi got out alive, but his mission was no more successful than Vieira’s, ending in the humiliation of having to announce the CIA’s Iyad Allawi, picked by the US, as the leader of the new Iraqi democracy. Allawi lasted less than a year in his position.

Back in the West, cornered by a reporter from the BBC, Annan was in the end forced to admit, under repeated questioning, that the invasion of Iraq was illegal – ‘if you wish,’ he grudgingly added. How little he wished it could be seen from a poignant lapsus in the same interview. Asked, ‘Are you bothered that the US is becoming an unrestrainable, unilateral superpower?’ Annan replied: ‘I think in the end everybody is concluding that it is best to work together with our allies.’ Our allies. Identification with the United States could not be more innocently complete.

Annan ended his tenure lowered by scandal, when it was revealed that his son Kojo had received a rake-off of ‘at least’ $300,000 for helping to fix up the Swiss-based company Cotecna with inspection contracts under the Oil for Food programme attached to the sanctions regime against Iraq. Annan, denying any knowledge of the contracts, hired Clinton’s defence counsel in the Jones-Lewinsky affair to ward off charges of corruption. The Volcker Commission, set up by Annan to investigate profiteering from the Oil for Food programme, was obliged to look into the matter. Despite the incontestable fact that Annan had met with Cotecna executives, one of whom testified that they had indeed discussed the UN contracts with him, and that documents had been rapidly shredded by one of Annan’s confidants, Volcker – whose sense of establishment solidarity was not matched by a grasp of semantics – concluded that the evidence against him was ‘not reasonably sufficient’: a formula in which the redundancy of the adverb destroys the denial of the adjective. For what would ‘unreasonably’ sufficient be? Even such sympathetic reporters as Traub or Meisler can hardly conceal their view of this verdict. Still, anyone who thinks Clinton told the truth about Paula Jones is entitled to believe Annan did so about Cotecna. It would, in any case, be unfair to judge a political record by such episodes. Annan was not personally greedy, and the venality at issue was trivial by comparison with the moral enormity of the sanctions themselves.

What is one to make of the career as a whole? Annan was never a strong figure, or an independent agent. As a UN bureaucrat, he obviously had his share of vanity and ambition, but it was probably no more, and in some cases less, than that of others. There is no reason to suppose his Americanism was purely calculating, a mere means of self-advancement. It belonged to his formation. He achieved high office as a creature of the Clinton administration, with ties that swaddled him to the end. Although personally fond of Bush and Blair, he never had a comparable rapport with the Republican administration, which lacked the same confidence in him. When he came under attack over the Oil for Food scandals, it was the Democratic coterie that had elevated him which rallied round. The campaign was led by Richard Holbrooke, imposing the changes in Annan’s entourage that were deemed necessary to save him. In fact, what is really striking about Annan’s tenure as secretary-general is less his personal characteristics than the nature of the inner circle that surrounded him. From the start, it was overwhelmingly Anglo-American, with a sprinkling of figures from the Anglophone zones of the First or Third World – Canada, Pakistan, India, Gambia – trained, like Annan himself, in the United States. A token Frenchman. Not a Russian, a Chinese, a Japanese, even a German or Italian in sight. The provenance of figures like Robert Orr, head of ‘strategic planning’, lifted straight from the National Security Council in Washington, Louise Fréchette, deputy secretary-general, dispatched from the Defense Ministry in Ottawa, or, lower down the scale, theorists of humanitarian intervention from Harvard or Princeton like John Ruggie and Michael Doyle, speaks for itself.

But since the real work of the UN is the manufacture not of actions but of legitimations, the two key figures were the set’s ventriloquists, who wrote the speeches and articles furbishing the secretary-general with his rhetorical image – much needed, since Annan’s own powers of expression were wooden to say the least. This pair, Edward Mortimer and Nader Mousavizadeh, came from the Financial Times and the New Republic respectively, two publications whose political profiles need little specification. Not surprisingly, Annan’s various pronouncements, applauded for their eloquence by like-minded colleagues across the West, were little more than lofty versions of editorials in these two publications. Mortimer, from a high ecclesiastical background, was a founder of the International Committee for a Free Iraq along with Ahmed Chalabi. Relations between them remained sufficiently close, Meisler tells us, for Chalabi to tip him off in advance of the Oil for Food affair before it broke. Mousavizadeh, editor of The Black Book of Bosnia, though technically a Dane, ‘was essentially American’ – as Traub puts it – ‘and, like Ruggie, could not view international law as the summum bonum’. Later, Mousavizadeh was to be elected a Global Leader of Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum in Davos, where Ruggie once conducted Annan as ‘the first secretary-general to speak at . . . the annual conclave of capital’. He now adorns Goldman Sachs, presumably pending higher things.

Few episodes are more revealing of the part played by this Anglo-American duo than the way in which the world came to learn that Nato’s blitz on Yugoslavia in 1999 was legitimate. Annan, unsure how to react, had to be manned up by his mentors to issue the absolving words. Rejecting a first draft submitted to him that expressed regret at the outbreak of war, Mortimer and Mousavizadeh handed him their own document, lauding the attack, to sign. According to Traub, ‘Mortimer says that when he delivered the new version, Annan gazed fixedly at it and finally said: “This is the most difficult statement I have had to make as secretary-general.” And then he agreed to issue the statement.’

During his second mandate, floundering in the Oil for Food crisis, Annan was summoned by Richard Holbrooke to his residence on the Upper West Side for a secret meeting, attended by Orr, Ruggie and Mousavizadeh, and three other Democratic insiders. There Annan was enjoined to fire unwanted colleagues, and accept a more competent minder, in the shape of Mark Malloch Brown, a former journalist for the Economist whose main claim to fame was to have been campaign manager for Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, a Bolivian ruler so hated by the population for his neoliberal zeal and subservience to Washington that he had recently had to flee the presidential palace by helicopter, and make for Miami. Without a murmur, Annan accepted him as the power in front of the throne. Holbrooke was pained that news of the arrangement leaked out. ‘The intention was to keep it confidential. No one wanted to give the impression of a group of outsiders, all of them Americans, dictating what to do to a secretary-general.’ Impressions, apparently, are everything.

Schematically – simplifying a mottled tale – there have been three distinct periods in the history of the UN. The organisation was from its inception an American creation, as Stephen Schlesinger has shown in abundant and admiring detail, the product of Roosevelt’s vision of a postwar world in which the USSR and Britain would retain delimited spheres of influence within an international order whose overarching power would be the United States. Its founding conference at San Francisco was meticulously controlled and choreographed by Washington, a special unit of US military intelligence at the army base in the old Spanish fort of the Presidio intercepting cables to and from the assembled delegates, the FBI tracking their movements on the ground, and a large bloc of Latin American satellites assuring majorities where issues were put to the vote. Soviet compliance was purchased with promises of non-interference in Eastern Europe and a watered-down right of veto in the Security Council. With its headquarters planted in New York, where surveillance would be permanent, and a large majority of members – principally European and Latin American – at the beck and call of Washington, the UN, whose first secretary-general, Trygve Lie, even illegally collaborated with the FBI in purging his own staff, was an all but infallible decoration of the American will. For 25 years, the US never had to cast a single veto in the Security Council, so relentlessly did its resolutions coincide with whatever Washington wanted. The landmarks of the UN in this period were approval of the creation of Israel (the Jewish third of the population allocated over half the territory of Mandate Palestine by Ralph Bunche, the ‘ghost-writing harlot’, as he described himself, of the UN plan for partition, rammed through the General Assembly by the US with every bribe and blackmail at its disposal); provision of a flag of convenience for American intervention in the Korean civil war, checked short of complete victory only by Chinese entry into the conflict; and induction of Mobutu Sese Seko’s dictatorship in the Congo, after Dag Hammarskjöld and his American advisers had connived at the murder of Patrice Lumumba.

Decolonisation, multiplying new member states from the Third World, brought such unimpeded utilisation of the UN by the US to an end. The General Assembly resolution of December 1960, calling for independence of the colonies – the US, in the company of Britain, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and South Africa, refused to vote for it – marked the dusk of European imperialism. In the Middle East, Israel’s pre-emptive war of 1967, on the pretext of Cairo’s request that UN forces finally exit the country, having been ensconced in Egypt ever since it was victim of the three-way attack by Britain, France and Israel in 1956 (naturally there was no UN presence on the Israeli side of the border; why should the aggressor put up with any?), was a turning-point for Arab opinion. In South-East Asia, the Tet offensive of 1968 emboldened opposition to American power across the Third World, and a group of 77 ex-colonial countries started for the first time to offer organised resistance in the UN. The belated seating of the People’s Republic of China in 1971, to Washington’s fury (this was before Nixon’s visit to Beijing) amid scenes of wild rejoicing in the chamber, made it clear that the General Assembly had escaped American control.

The first US veto had been cast not long before, in defence of Ian Smith’s racist regime in Rhodesia. Since then, in a complete reversal of the pattern of the previous period, the US has vetoed more than eighty resolutions in the UN, many of them critical of Israel, others of South Africa, and not a few of its own actions in Nicaragua and elsewhere – products of the conjunction between the Soviet bloc and the Third World in the 1970s and 1980s. The acute dislike of the UN on the American right, lingering to this day, dates from these years. Unlike the first phase of UN history, however, this second phase was for all practical purposes an exercise in futility. There was no risk of the US suffering an Israel, Korea or Congo in reverse. Washington was not going to be ambushed, as Moscow had more than once been, in a structure it had itself designed. The US remained master of what the UN could do, however many impotent resolutions were passed in the General Assembly, or proposed to the Security Council, to be killed by it. No UN decisions of any significance mark these decades. In the resultant limbo, symbolic gestures like the denunciation of Zionism as a form of racism made do instead.

This period came to an abrupt end in 1990, with the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, and the collapse of the USSR the following year. As late as 1989, the US – along with the UK and France – had to veto a resolution condemning the American invasion of Panama. By the spring of 1991, the Gulf War could be launched with Soviet assent and Arab participation, under cover of a deliberately vague Security Council resolution, passed with just one abstention. Victory in the Cold War, knocking the USSR out of the ring, and the concomitant eclipse of nationalism by neoliberalism in the Third World, henceforward gave the US more thoroughgoing power over the UN than it had enjoyed even at the height of its postwar ascendancy, since it could now rely on the compliance, tacit or express, of Russia and China. Annan’s Secretariat was one product of this change. The multiplication of UN peacekeeping missions in the 1990s, off-loading policing tasks of lesser strategic importance – Haiti and the like – was another. On occasion, when the US had no great stake in the outcome, as in East Timor once Suharto had fallen, such missions could even live up to their name, without altering the structural realities of the organisation.

Of the staff and siting of the UN in New York, the description of the Australian writer Shirley Hazzard, who worked for a decade inside it, and has left us the best account of the atmosphere of its early years, still stands:

Americans were not – and have never been – ‘internationalised’ in the United Nations Secretariat. Living on their own ground, speaking their own idiom and existing within their own culture, they have been required to make far less adaptation to other ways of thought, speech and life than would have been the case had the United Nations been established in Oslo or Geneva, as was originally suggested. On the other hand, the non-American, international contingent of the staff has tended, to a greater or lesser degree, to become ‘Americanised’, living under the immense, unchallenged pressure of the American way of life. A certain fraction of the international staff takes out American citizenship; others will stay on in America for years after retirement from the United Nations.

For their part, large numbers of the diplomats dispatched to represent their states at the organisation, above all from smaller and poorer countries, have made their own adjustments to the setting: a throng of delegates caught in the pleasures of Manhattan like so many flies in molasses, while their offices are bugged by American intelligence – with no indignity, some indeed finding it an honour to be worthy of the attention. ‘A US government official with experience at the world body confirmed that American administrations long have relied on spying at the UN and not just during times of crisis,’ the Los Angeles Times reported in March 2003. ‘“We’ve always done it,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s routine.”’ Asked about the bugging, Pakistan’s ambassador ‘said with a smile’: ‘“It is regarded as one of the privileges of the host country.” At least one country seemed flattered. Bulgaria’s ambassador, Stefan Tavrov, said that having the US eavesdrop on their mission was almost a mark of prestige.’

Today, paramountcy does not mean omnipotence. The US cannot count on always securing UN legitimation of its actions ex ante. But where this is wanting, retrospective validation is readily available, as the occupation of Iraq has shown. What is categorically excluded is active opposition on the part of the UN to any significant US initiative. A Security Council resolution, let alone a secretary-general, condemning an American action is unthinkable. Ban Ki-Moon, whose appointment required Chinese assent, may keep a lower profile than Annan, but his role is unlikely to be very different. The US grip on the organisation has not relaxed, as can be seen from current UN resolutions on Lebanon and Iran. Anxious voices from liberal opinion, worrying that the organisation might become irrelevant if Bush’s ‘unilateralism’ were to persist, and plaintive appeals from the left to defend the UN from distortion by Washington, are regularly heard today. They can be reassured. The future of the United Nations is safe. It will continue to be, as it was intended to be, a serviceable auxiliary mechanism of the Pax Americana.

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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.

Edward Mortimer

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.

Perry Anderson
Los Angeles

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.

Scott Malcomson

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.

Salim Lone

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.

Tariq Ali
London N6

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.

Shashi Tharoor
New York

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.

Tariq Ali

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