The call for Kofi Annan's resignation has gotten louder and louder as the conservative media flogs the overblown oil-for-food scandal. But should liberals be calling for Annan to go -- on wholly different grounds? Prospect senior correspondent Michael Steinberger argues the case against Annan, while Nation UN correspondent Ian Williams, author of The UN for Beginners, takes the defense.

This is the second of three parts. The first round can be read here; the third round will appear on Wednesday.


Michael Steinberger

I'm not sure even Kofi Annan would go the lengths you go to exculpate him.

You write that Annan was “not unconnected” to the Rwanda debacle. Not unconnected? He was the head of U.N. peacekeeping at the time; and we know -- thanks to Philip Gourevitch (surely he isn't part of the vast right-wing conspiracy?) -- that Annan received a fax from Romeo Dallaire on January 11, 1994, warning of an imminent slaughter and that he ordered Dallaire not to intervene. Not unconnected? He doesn't have blood on his hands, but he surely ought to have it on his conscience. And if he'd had any sense of shame or honor, he would have resigned at the time.

For all your loathing of President George W. Bush, your defense of Annan is remarkably, well, Bushian. To hear the president, his aides, and his supporters tell it, nothing that goes wrong on Bush's watch is ever Bush's responsibility; you are making almost the exact same argument on Annan's behalf. Indeed, your suggestion -- that Annan's only mistake in the oil-for-food affair was to have appointed Paul Volcker -- immediately called to mind Bush's suggestion that his only mistake was to have made a few bad Cabinet appointments.

The only issue I raised that you address with any degree of seriousness and substance is Darfur; but here, too, the Kofi Annan you describe is not the Kofi Annan the rest of the world has observed. Even after Jan Egeland, the U.N.'s own man on the scene, had sounded the alarm about ethnic cleansing, Annan refused to use the word “genocide” to describe the events in Darfur. Nor could he have been any more lackadaisical about traveling to the region to assess the situation for himself.

On the oil-for-food scandal, you resort to what lawyers dealt an impossibly weak hand do: You obfuscate. You disparagingly describe Mark Malloch Brown, an Annan appointee, as a “canny operator” and accuse him of trying to appease the U.N.'s critics; you level the same charge against Volcker, also an Annan appointee. You try to play down the scandal by mockingly invoking attempts to play it up and by dismissing the audits as the work of “pettifogging accountants.” Finally, you throw your hands in the air and declare that none of this matters, because the fix is in and Annan's guilt has been predetermined.

Only at the end do we get to what I think is your real motive in defending Annan: You seem to believe that, in defending Annan, you are defending multilateralism. For many Americans liberals, and for many Europeans of all political stripes, multilateralism has become something of a secular faith in which the United Nations is the Vatican and the secretary-general the pope. (Dominique de Villepin, in his speech to the U.N. Security Council on February 14, 2002, even referred to the United Nations as “this temple.”) Just as many Catholics see an attack on the pope as an attack on their faith, many devout multilateralists seem to regard an attack on the secretary-general as an attack on theirs; I gather you fall into this category.

I do not. I certainly prefer multilateralism to unilateralism, and I prefer collective action under the auspices of the United Nations to ad hoc coalitions of the willing (or coerced). However, collective action is not an end in itself; if the United Nations can't summon the will to try to prevent even the most egregious human rights violations, I'd rather bypass Turtle Bay than see tens of thousands of lives sacrificed on the altar of multilateralism. And let me repeat what I said before: Supporting Annan is not the same thing as supporting the United Nations. Annan has done great harm to the institution and to the cause of liberal internationalism, and the United Nations can ill afford to wait two years for the fresh start it so badly needs.

I certainly understand your desire not to yield to the yahoos on the right, but I think you are misreading what's going on here. Bush has no desire to get rid of Annan; Annan is actually quite useful to the administration. In the minds of many Americans now, Annan is the corrupt, incompetent face of a corrupt, incompetent institution, and this is precisely how the Bushies want the United Nations to be seen.

It seems to me that the smart approach would be to call Bush's bluff. The president has repeatedly said that he supports the United Nations and wishes to work with it. Clearly, though, the administration doesn't want to work with Annan, and the secretary-general is obviously in no position at this point to wield any influence in Washington. If Annan quit or was forced to resign, the United States would have a great deal of say over the choice of a replacement, and I believe Bush would find it much harder to stiff the United Nations if it were his man or woman at the helm of the organization.

Annan -- haughty, inept, and now completely engulfed in scandal -- is a godsend for those in Washington who despise the United Nations and what it symbolizes; for this very reason, I want him gone.

Ian Williams

It really will not do to pick up every attack from the talk shows and throw it Annan. The secretary-general is not a head of state, nor even the CEO of an organization. He "represents" 191 member states and is there to do their bidding. Of course, he has some moral authority -- and Annan has used it – but, in general, he cannot frontally attack a member state, because he has to work with it afterward. Indeed, Annan has no troops of his own; he first must persuade the U.N. Security Council to authorize a mission and then persuade member states to contribute troops.

Let us begin with Darfur. Annan actually went to Sudan and protested to the government there. He has addressed Khartoum in terms that are unprecedented for a secretary-general talking to a member government.

At the request of the U.N. security council, and with no reluctance at all, Annan sent a commission to Sudan to investigate whether or not genocide took place. Annan, with the Europeans and Africans, actually managed to get some U.N. troops on the ground and was pushing for more; the United States did not offer any. We can only guess whether that was out of prejudice against having American troops in blue helmets or a rare case of awareness that sending troops into yet another Arab state would terminally finish Washington's already moribund reputation in the Muslim world.

In fact, Annan has been pushing, almost from the time he took office, for the international community to adopt rules that would allow action against states who massacre their own people -- but without falling prey to opportunistic abuse of the concept of humanitarian intervention of the kind that British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Bush used in Iraq. The Annan-commissioned High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change has just reported back with a set of principles that, if adopted, could genuinely mean never again for Rwanda and Bosnia.

Annan was indeed deeply implicated in those events -- as was the rest of the world. But they happened before he took office, so asking him to resign over them now is somewhat anomalous. Unlike others, he actually took the blame in the reports he ordered after he had taken office.

I note that, after you accepted that the oil-for-food "scandal" was largely contrived by the right, you returned to the fray with it. I repeat: There may have been a scandal -- but it was not a U.N. scandal. Saddam Hussein got most of his revenue from selling oil to Jordan and Turkey with the explicit approval of the U.S. administration.

Annan is respected by the vast majority of the world, and that is because he has been cautious but principled in his approach to global issues. He has not been heroic in his virtue, and he has avoided provocation. It would be nice if he were louder -- but that is not in his job description. As the arch-diplomat, he has to talk to people whom he may dislike.

The only people who have called for his resignation (presumably, with the honorable exception of yourself) are a small but vociferous coterie in the United States, not one of whom has ever had a good word to say for the organization or for multilateralism. In effect, for Annan to go at their behest would be to hand over the choice of his successor to this same crowd whose sole aim is to see a United Nations totally subservient to fervent neoconservative dreams of empire -- or destroyed.

This is the second of three parts. The first round can be read here; the third round will appear on Wednesday.

Michael Steinberger is a Prospect senior correspondent. Ian Williams is The Nation's UN correspondent and author of The UN for Beginners and Deserter: George Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans, and His Past.

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