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Kofi Annan Walks Tightrope Between Bush And Rest Of World

by Thalif Deen

UN Handmaiden To U.S. In Iraq
(IPS) UNITED NATIONS -- When UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently faulted a lopsided U.S. resolution for failing to assure self-rule for Iraqis, he was accused of threatening a regime change in the White House.

The politically conservative 'Wall Street Journal' said Annan's open criticism of the proposal was "unprecedented for a UN leader."

Annan has made it clear, said the Journal editorial, "that he's now more interested in defeating (U.S.) President George Bush than he ever was in toppling (Iraqi president) Saddam Hussein."

The charge was way off the mark, even though right-wing U.S. ideologues fear that the deadly U.S. military misadventure in Iraq might cost Bush a second term as president in elections scheduled for 2004 -- the fault of Bush himself and nothing to do with Annan.

At a time when many as a willing servant of the United States are dismissing the United Nations, Annan has been trying to assert himself and protect the credibility of the much-maligned organization.

On Thursday, he announced the withdrawal of his international staff from Baghdad, over U.S. objections, fearing for their safety.

When Annan complained that the recent U.S. resolution fell short of expectations, an unnamed senior U.S. official -- rumored to be Secretary of State Colin Powell -- was quoted as saying that the UN chief's remarks were "unhelpful," "unusual" and "surprising."

In his opening address to the 191-member General Assembly in September, Annan strongly denounced the concept of the pre-emptive military strike -- taking a dig at the United States, which invaded Iraq in March without UN authorization.

At a summit meeting on terrorism, also in September, Annan condemned state terrorism, this time taking a shot at Israel, a political sacred cow in the U.S. administration.

Still, Annan's new-found assertiveness has drawn mixed reviews from U.S. academics, long-time UN watchers and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

"It is too late for Kofi Annan to try to rescue the sinking reputation of his leadership, or lack thereof, of the international organization," Professor As'ad Abukhalil of California State University told IPS.

"Maybe the UN bombings in Baghdad were a wake-up call for Annan, who had been long asleep at the wheel. But it is a belated wake-up, and this person who was brought in by the United States, will be kept by the United States because he proved his usefulness."

Former UN Assistant Secretary-General Hans Von Sponeck, who headed the oil-for-food program in Iraq, was more charitable. "The U.S. government does not want to understand that its hegemonial policies and its unilateral actions are endangering the future of the organization Secretary-General Annan is heading."

"Annan has no choice but to remind the United States that this is neither acceptable to the international community nor to himself," Von Sponeck told IPS.

Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, believes Annan is deeply committed to the United Nations as an institution. "So, the credibility of the world body is of great importance to him."

"He recognizes the geo-political reality of a unipolar world, where challenging U.S. prerogatives too directly could end up harming not just his career but the institution as a whole," Zunes added in an interview.

At the same time, Annan realizes that allowing the Bush administration to get away with too much would damage UN credibility in much of the rest of the world, he added.

"It has always been a delicate balancing act, and his eloquent use of 'UN speak,' the diplomatic style of communication he has learned through his many years of service to the organization, has been one way of trying to find that middle ground," Zunes said.

As UN Secretary-General, Annan might be one of the few people with a high enough profile and international reputation to potentially make a difference. "Besides, most secretaries-general don't serve more than two terms, anyway," he added.

Annan, a native of Ghana and the first UN secretary-general from Africa, completes his second five-year term in December 2006.

Ian William, a contributing editor to the New York-based 'Nation' magazine, told IPS that Annan is clearly not standing for another term "and I think he is genuinely upset when he discovered how his tactfulness was being misinterpreted in the Third World -- not least when the consequences of confusion between the occupation and the UN's undefined 'vital' role were so bloodily exposed in Baghdad."

"In either case," said Williams, "Annan has to bridge the divide: the United Nations can only work effectively with the United States as a member, but cannot work in the way the UN charter and the other members want by letting Washington pull all of the strings all of the time."

"He obviously felt that the time had come to draw a line in the sands -- of Iraq," Williams added.

Jeff Laurenti, a long-time UN expert and member of the board of directors of the UN Association of USA, told IPS that Annan alone has the international and American credibility to be able to represent the UN cause in the face of controversy coming out of Washington.

"He was explicitly critical of pre-emptive strikes. But he was careful not to criticize any particular government. (Yet) nobody could fail to see he was talking about the conservative ideologues in Washington," Laurenti said.

"It is his conviction -- and that of many others in the world -- that the whole question of regulation of the use of force is the cornerstone of the UN charter and the collective security system. And if you take that out, the whole structure comes crumbling down."

"So, he felt compelled to dramatize it and make this issue the sole theme of his address to the General Assembly, which indicates the gravity of the situation."

Laurenti also pointed out that humanitarian intervention was Annan's theme in his 1991 General Assembly speech following the Kosovo war: "ultimately it is people, not states that matter," he said at the time.

"Just as he took on the governments of developing countries in that debate, so Annan has taken on the American nationalist conservative critics this year. In a sense, there is a symmetry," Laurenti added.

"Annan obviously feels that if he does not speak up on this, he will be remembered in history as a secretary-general who was afraid to stand up to the ideals of the United Nations. And that Kofi Annan is definitely not."

But Joan Russow of the Canada-based Global Compliance Research Project saw no redeeming feature in Annan's General Assembly statement.

"Regardless of Kofi Annan's remarks about pre-emptive-preventive attacks, the Security Council under his guidance has essentially condoned what should not be condoned: pre-emptive attacks; violation of the (UN) charter and the rule of international law; invaders setting up a hand-picked provisional government in Iraq; and invaders avoiding their responsibilities under UN Geneva Conventions," she said.

"Afar Bush declared that the war in Iraq was over, Annan called upon nations to support the reconstruction of and humanitarian support for Iraq, conveying that there were no irreversible consequences of war; and consequently relegated the United Nations to the role of not 'preventer' but a perpetuator of the cycle of error," she added.

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Albion Monitor November 5, 2003 (

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