Annan and On

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 Ian Williams, UN correspondent for The Nation and author of The UN for Beginners, takes the defense.

This is the last of three parts. The first round can be read here, the second here.

Michael Steinberger

I did not say Annan should resign now because of his failure to act in Rwanda; I said that if he'd had any sense of shame or honor, he would have resigned then.

Nor did I say that the oil-for-food imbroglio has been “largely contrived” by FOX and friends. I merely acknowledged that some on the right are using the scandal to try to destroy Annan and to discredit the United Nations and that they have reached conclusions that are not supported by the evidence that has come to light thus far. But their cynical agenda is not an excuse to ignore the fact that something went terribly wrong with the oil-for-food program, a point you've now finally conceded. You write, “I repeat: There may have been a scandal.” No, Ian, you aren't repeating yourself: This is the first time in our entire exchange that you've acknowledged that the scandal is not the product of William Safire's imagination, febrile though it may be.

You offer two reasons -- excuses, really -- for why Annan should be absolved of responsibility for what has befallen the United Nations on his watch, and neither is satisfactory. The first reason is institutional paralysis: The United Nations is only as effective as its members make it; because members seem unable or unwilling to reach consensus on the most vexing issues confronting the world community, Annan and the United Nations are hamstrung. It is certainly true that if the United States and other nations aren't prepared to set aside their differences in order to act on behalf of the greater good, there is only so much the United Nations can do.

But how does this explain the lack of transparency and accountability in the Secretariat? How does it explain the gross mismanagement of the oil-for-food program? How does it explain the lack of oversight of U.N. peacekeeping operations in Congo? It doesn't, of course. Nor does it explain Annan's slow and equivocal response to the crisis in Darfur. (We'll just have to agree to disagree on this one.) You acknowledge that the job comes with some built-in moral authority, yet you portray Annan as a mere figurehead who must tread cautiously so as to not offend his 191 constituents.

However, Annan didn't hesitate to anger Washington and London by declaring the Iraq War illegal; he routinely angers the Israelis by denouncing their actions in the occupied territories. So why the unwillingness to step on loafers over Darfur? If Annan is so respected around the world, then surely he ought to be able to rally the world's conscience and string together the votes necessary to sanction U.N. intervention in Sudan. Instead, the most impassioned statement yet delivered at the UN concerning Darfur has come not from Annan but from outgoing U.S. Ambassador John Danforth. As you listened to Danforth's lament that “one wonders about the utility of the General Assembly on days like this,” did you not yourself wonder why these words couldn't come from the mouth of the secretary-general instead?

The other reason you wish to exonerate Annan is because you see the assault on him as part of a larger offensive -- against the United Nations and multilateralism -- and are determined not to yield an inch to the neocons and theocons. So you put yourself in the position of defending the indefensible (Annan), because the indefensible happens to be under assault from the reprehensible (the right-wing noise machine). But I'd like to think that one of the things that distinguishes Us from Them is a willingness to be guided by facts, and the fact is that Annan, through his ineptitude, has brought these troubles on himself. He is clearly not up to the job, and the United Nations has suffered grievously as a result. For its sake, and for the sake of multilateralism, Annan needs to go.

Ian Williams

I have always said there was an oil-for-food scandal -- but it is not a United Nations scandal. The program fed 80 percent of the Iraqi people and kept Baghdad short enough of resources that we now know it succeeded in its second aim: preventing Saddam Hussein from rearming. As scandals go, we can only wish they would all be so successful.

On the other hand, Saddam Hussein's sanctions-busting was known and openly condoned by the United States; Congress exonerated Turkey and Jordan from any sanctions. Samir Vincent, who pled guilty last week, was an American citizen acting under the noses of the CIA and FBI. He was not a U.N. employee. Look again at the stories in the Financial Times and elsewhere about the investigation. You will notice that they are not blaming the United Nations or Annan; they are looking at the real scandal.

Is Annan perfect? No. In my opinion, he concedes too much to Ariel Sharon and kowtows too much to Beijing, and there are indeed many people in the United Nations whom he should have fired long ago. Under pressure, he has probably given the United States more in the way of influence than I would like.

But overall, he has combined principle and diplomatic effectiveness in a way that has made him an outstanding secretary-general in seriously trying times. Previous incumbents could play one side against the other; he has to wrestle with one dubiously rational superpower that other nations are usually too scared to stand against.

It is precisely because so many people around the world, and even in the United States, see him as a moral authority that the diehards on the right have been slinging mud.

And then we come to what really has to be game, set, and match. You almost criticize Kofi Annan for telling off the United States and the United Kingdom (for illegally invading another country) and for reprimanding Ariel Sharon (for his behavior in the occupied territories). Most of the world applauds him for doing that. Doesn't defying two veto-holding powers, and still managing to talk to them constructively, speak to a judicious combination of diplomacy and moral principle?

But you contrast it with his silence on Darfur. Go hit your Google button, since you don't accept what I said in the previous post. Just take a random selection of the hits. In June, Annan said: "The world must insist that the Sudanese authorities neutralize and disarm the Janjaweed militia, who continue to terrorize the population."

In September, he said: "The tragedy in Darfur is one of the greatest challenges the international community faces today. The whole world is watching this tragedy unfold, and it is watching us. No one can be allowed to sidestep or ignore their responsibility to protect the innocent civilians." And again: "Our urgent task is to do everything we can to help protect the people of Darfur from further humanitarian suffering, terrible violence, and human rights abuses, and to bring their agony to an end." And: "No matter how the crimes that are being committed against civilians in Darfur are characterized or legally defined, it is urgent to take action now. Civilians are still being attacked and fleeing their villages even as we speak, many months after the government committed itself to bring the militias under control."

The fact that the American. press was not listening, distracted perhaps by the inane buzzing about the oil-for-food program, should not detract from Annan's careful attention. Having watched the war in Bosnia, where the United Nations covered up actively for atrocities, I can assure you that the U.N. monitors have quickly reported on the actions of the Sudanese, and he has condemned them in an unprecedented way.

There are legitimate criticisms of Annan, from a leftward perspective. But you have not made any of them -- and the criticisms from FOX and its allies, above all, shouldn't be recycled with a liberal label.

This is the last of three parts. The first round can be read here, the second here.

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.