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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

UN's Tough Diplomat




Kofi Annan gets a lot of press for being polite to Washington policy-makers. The reality is that the UN secretary-general is a far tougher diplomat and significantly more accountable to the developing countries of the Third World than he gets credit for.


Even when Annan is forced to give in to U.S. pressure, he demands -- and gets -- something in return. In Geneva earlier this month, Annan for the first time cited the U.S. version, rather than the official UN language, of what Iraq must do to end the economic sanctions. (Washington wants Iraq to implement a whole range of demands, including reparations and returning Kuwaiti prisoners, while the UN resolution links the sanctions only to allowing inspections and destroying Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.)


But in what appears to be a quid pro quo, the UN chief won silent acquiescence for his peace mission that would likely have sparked harsh U.S. condemnation a few weeks ago. Annan said he was going to the region "to listen," but the fact of his high-profile visit to Israel, the Palestinian autonomous region and Lebanon at a time of serious stalemate in the peace process stands as a direct challenge to Washington's effort to exclude other international players from Middle East diplomacy.


There is little question that Annan's tactical skill was not solely responsible for the UN-Iraq agreement that averted (at least for the moment) a campaign of U.S. airstrikes against Iraq. The ultimate decisions were made in Washington and Baghdad. But it was Annan who pulled it off. And whatever complications may ensue, the pragmatic Ghanaian succeeded where few others might have had a chance. Much of his success could be traced to exactly the qualities that Annan's Washington supporters apparently missed when he was presented as the U.S. favorite to replace the supposedly anti-reform Boutros Boutros-Ghali. It is said that Annan was hand-picked by U.S. Secretary State Madeleine Albright. Within a month after taking office in early 1997, he captivated Washington; he dazzled Western leaders at the Davos economic summit; and he had a celebrated meeting with Jesse Helms. Beltway policy-makers assumed his low-key style reflected a malleable, soft, generally pro-U.S. core. They were wrong.


Annan's success in Baghdad -- as well as the breadth of his global popularity -- are rooted in his being African, a man of the Third World and, despite Albright's great expectations, someone who does not believe that Washington is always right. He does indeed speak softly -- but the big diplomatic stick he carried to Baghdad was not simply the armada of U.S. aircraft carriers; it was also his understanding, rooted in his own history, of how issues of power, persuasion and humiliation succeed or fail in the Third World. He understood the necessity of treating the Iraqi leadership with respect -- despite their violations of UN resolutions. Annan convinced Saddam Hussein, face-to-face, that the Iraqi leader had to abandon his demand for a time limit on inspections of his most secret sites. The UN chief was able to reach agreement and win Saddam's signature by, among other things, including in the final language the United Nations' written commitment to "respect the sovereignty ... of Iraq."


In traveling to Baghdad to meet personally with Hussein, and in committing the United Nations and its member states to respecting Iraq as a nation, Annan positioned his organization back at the center of Middle East crisis management. Further, by requesting "advice" and "guidance" from, but not necessarily unanimous prior approval by the Security Council, the secretary-general defended the breadth of the world organization. The United States wanted to keep the Iraq crisis confined to the Security Council where U.S., French, British, Russian and Chinese veto power distorts any semblance of democracy. Annan's initiative was a reminder that all members of the United Nations should have a role to play.


It was that renewed assertion of UN centrality, as much as the diversion of a punishing military strike, that won Annan international acclaim. Governments throughout the Arab world, across Africa, Asia, Latin America and much of Europe as well, welcomed the diplomatic solution to the crisis.


But in Washington, hawks in U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration were frustrated by Iraq's last-minute reprieve from bombing.


Republican fury mounted, driven by the same factors that made Annan a hero in much of the rest of the world: the U.S. war drive, and the nuclear-armed armada of the most powerful nation on Earth, was turned aside by a feat of careful, principled diplomacy carried out by a soft-spoken man once thought to be squarely in Washington's pocket.


It is clear that public opposition at home and abroad to a U.S. military strike played a key role in Clinton's decision to accept the Annan-brokered UN-Iraqi Memorandum of Understanding. The Ohio State town meeting fiasco demonstrated the paucity of public support for a strike, and the inability of the administration to adequately respond to serious questions and challenges.


The success of the first black African secretary-general bodes well for future efforts to transform the United Nations from Helms' goal of a nonexistent United Nations and from Albright's vision of the United Nations as a tool of Washington's foreign policy to what Annan's mission to Baghdad represents: a truly global United Nations standing up, when necessary, not only to petty dictators, but to the most powerful nations on Earth.


Phyllis Bennis, a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, is author of "Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today's UN." She contributed this comment to The Baltimore Sun.