After the UN

KOFI ANNAN reflects on his decade long tenure at the helm of the world’s governing body and shares an insider perspective on Syria and why Tony Blair was the only person who could have stopped the war in Iraq.

He was the head of the UN when the Iraq war started. His last mission was to bring peace to Syria. He failed. So what exactly did Kofi Annan achieve? A few weeks before the start of the Iraq war, Kofi Annan invited half a dozen or so journalists for breakfast at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington DC.

As I chased my chilled fruit salad around its crystal bowl, I remember thinking that I was witnessing something extraordinary: the Secretary-General of the United Nations had come to the capital of the Free World and, in that slow, soft baritone of his, was trying to marshal the weight of world opinion and harness the moral authority of his office to stop the President of the United States from going to war. He was firm but measured.

He was diplomatic, but unambiguous. He had come to make an intervention. And he failed.

“I think I did everything that a Secretary-General could have done or was humanly possible,” He tells me over a cup of tea, nearly a decade later. He doesn’t buy the idea that he should have been more assertive, more aggressive in opposition or even that he should have resigned in protest.

The Bush Administration, he says, was “determined to go, the troops had been deployed, the summer heat was coming and they wanted to get it over before they missed that opportunity. In a way, the military logic was dictating the pace.”

It is one of the tasteless oddities of journalism and, I suppose, diplomacy, too, that discussion of human rights violations, military invasions and civilian casualties often happen in plush hotels. This time, Annan is in a suite in the very nice Sofitel on Pall Mall. Like the Jefferson, its decor is elegant but unobtrusive, all dark wood, thick carpets and heavy drapes. It is a world away from what we are talking about.

Annan has come to London to discuss his memoirs: Interventions – a Life in War and Peace. It is the history of nearly five decades at the United Nations and it reads in part like a catalogue of modern massacres, and in part like a manifesto for diplomacy in a world of warmongers – and, inevitably, like a rebuttal of his and the UN’s legion of critics. Given the soft furnishings in the room and the body count in the conversation, the experience is, like a production of Richard III on the set of Mamma Mia!, jarring.

When Kofi Annan looks back at the dynamics at play in 2003, he thinks one person just might have been able to stop the Iraq war: Tony Blair.

“I think I will forever wonder what would have happened if, without a second [UN] resolution… Blair had said, “George, this is where we part company. You’re on your own.’ Would that have stopped Bush?” Annan asks. Perhaps not, he says, but then goes on: “I really think it could have stopped the war… It would have given the Americans a pause. It would have given them a very serious pause to think it through… All this would have raised a question: “Do we go this alone?’” Annan is not in the Desmond Tutu camp. He does not have any time for the idea that Tony Blair and George W. Bush should be hauled in front of the International Criminal Court. They were democratically elected leaders, he says, who acted in what they believed were the best interests of their countries and the world. Annan says he has not seen Bush since he left office, but is in relatively regular contact with Tony Blair.

But, to be clear, you think that if you, as Secretary-General, had stepped down, it would not have stopped the war? “No.” If Colin Powell had stepped down? “I’m not sure it would have stopped the war.” But if Britain had spoken up? “Yes, because of the special relationship and also the fact that… when you think of the big countries, Britain was the only one that teamed up with him.”

This is one of the surprises about Annan. He has such a gentle, melodic voice that if you listen just to the sound of what he is saying, it all seems rather soothing. His speech has the lullaby effect of the Shipping Forecast.

The words, though, are biting. “Blair had the potential to be one of the most brilliant politicians of his time and really for a period was a star. And now you ask me the questions, “What went wrong? What changed him?’ It is very difficult to say.”

His tone in conversation – the ruminations, the recriminations, the regrets – are echoed in the book. If there is a moral to these memoirs, it is a wearying one: a man really trying to make peace cannot stop men who really want to make war.

True, of course, Annan and the UN won the Nobel Prize for Peace during his time as Secretary-General. True, too, the UN and he, personally, coordinated interventions in Kosovo and East Timor that saved countless lives. And institutionally, he drove an agenda of international justice through the establishment of the ICC, a greater spirit of openness at the UN and an ambitious agenda for dealing with Aids, with other diseases, with deprivation and with corrupt governments across the globe.

But in Rwanda, in Bosnia, in Darfur, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Israel and Palestine, in Lebanon, in Iraq and, right now, in Syria, it has been the case, time and again, of inadequate interventions.

Annan and the UN have spoken out against the killing. And the killing has continued.

Dag Hammarskjöld, one of the few outstanding Secretaries-General, said in 1954 that the United Nations was not created to bring humanity to heaven but to save it from hell. By that measure, an uncharitable reading of Annan’s story would conclude that his UN fell short.

Great expectations

The expectations placed on the UN, of course, are heroically and unreasonably high. I still have fond memories of being taken, as a child on a trip to New York, to visit the UN headquarters. I remember thinking this is where the people who want to save the world go to work. When I read Annan’s book, I was reminded of that sense of higher purpose. But, within a few pages, the idealism gave way to the realisation that a career at the UN must be freighted with guilt, anger and exasperation.

In conflict after conflict, the UN – either thanks to the indecision of the Security Council or the unwillingness of the international community to take sides or the meagre military resources put at its disposal – found the world could not be saved from itself. And this is the central argument of Annan’s book. To paraphrase: it is easy to blame the UN, but if the international body is not given the mandate or the means to intervene, then it is just a talking shop of worthies.

Over the course of Annan’s time at the UN, the world learnt this the hard way. When he started out in the field in 1973, peacekeeping was more of a monitoring mission. It typically involved sending 100 or so observers who had neither the arms nor the authority to intervene. But, by the Nineties, this old model of peacekeeping had got the UN into ever more trouble. In Somalia and, even more so, in Rwanda, it learnt that, if it wanted to keep the peace, it needed to be able to deploy considerable force. Further, Annan came to the conclusion that the UN had to be willing to intervene to protect not only countries that were victims of aggression from other countries, but also individuals who suffered at the hands of their own states. And, then, the lesson he drew from Bosnia was not only that the UN had to have the muscle to intervene, it needed, on occasion, to take sides.

This analysis would, logically, lead to a UN-mandated invasion of Iraq. This was a case of individuals needing protection from the arbitrary violence of their own state; of a tyrant who would only respond to the use of substantial force; and where the choice was between taking sides and, by not taking sides, acquiescing to Saddam Hussein’s continued rule of Iraq. Indeed, there are those who say that Annan’s failing in 2003 was not his inability to stand in the way of the Bush administration, but his unwillingness to stand up for it.

Annan’s lesson from the deeply divisive argument over Iraq – divisions that, as we have seen in Syria, still paralyse the international community and have so eroded the raison d’être of the UN – is a different one.

“I walked into my peacekeeping work with the conventional wisdom that war is too serious a matter to be left to the generals,” he says. “I walked away with another insight – that the declaration of war is too serious a matter to be left to politicians and the diplomats, because sometimes we allow words to fly away with us and we talk ourselves into war without asking the key and critical questions. In fact, in my experience, all the tough questions came from the generals. “Do you know the risk you are taking? Do you know what you are going to do to my boys? What is the exit strategy? Why are we doing this? Who am I to kill? And why?” In person, the thing that is most impressive about Annan is his temperament. He is shorter than he appears on television, but, no question, a trim, handsome man. He is dressed, as ever, in a navy suit and a smart, forgettable silk tie. But his most vivid and appealing quality is his composure. He is calm. To be more precise, he is not one of those men who has a mannered serenity that is born of a supreme, and quite annoying, self-confidence. I warm to him when I start asking him questions: he finishes a fair few of my sentences, as people in awkward situations sometimes do. And although I have seen him before in speechifying mode, he does not recycle the old rhetoric with me. He answers all questions directly, sometimes a little defensively, but always unflustered.

He has never been a shouter, he says. Nor does he swear. “When things get really tough and pressured, I get calmer and cooler, which helps… Over time you learn to operate with some of these painful things, with a certain, not detachment, but healthy distance, so that they don’t eat you up.” Low blood pressure should surely be a prerequisite for the job of Secretary-General, which requires multitasking, on an epic scale, with murderous dictators and duplicitous politicians. Duping the UN became an art form during his time. In Blair’s Downing Street, Annan points out, to “Kofi someone” took on a meaning of its own – namely, to wrap military plans in humanitarian waffle, to “make loose promises to the Secretary- General that you don’t intend to keep”.

The West, of course, has long talked up the UN, but liked to treat the S-G as more secretary than general. The politicians who select the Secretary-General have opted for men they think they can push around.

Annan, by the standards of UN Secretaries-General, was a political star. By comparison with the disastrous Kurt Waldheim, the sweet but inconsequential Pérez de Cuéllar, the hapless and eventually ousted Boutros Boutros Ghali, not to mention the generally invisible current Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, Kofi Annan stands out as one of the few heavyweights in the history of the organisation. He remains the most famous African statesman beside Nelson Mandela.

On Syria

At the age of 74, Kofi Annan is just beginning to eye the possibility of spending a little less time on a plane, a bit more at home. His latest intervention, this time in Syria, is over. And, again, with little to show for it.

Some would say that the diplomatic dance he led just gave Bashar al-Assad time – and a little political cover – to keep on killing his critics. But Annan is no naïf. When Ban Ki Moon asked him to act as the UN’s special envoy to Syria, most people, including Annan, knew the mission was more than likely doomed.

Listening to him speak, it is clear that, despite the derision he got from the know-it-all armchair commentators, he well understood the ethnic tensions, historic hatreds and big power politics at work both within Syria and around it. In fact, he points out that one underappreciated dynamic in the West is that Iran is seen by the countries in the region as the real victor of the Iraq war. A Sunni regime has been replaced by a Shia one, tipping the local power balance in Tehran’s favour and putting Saudi Arabia on edge. Nor is Annan a softie. He does not mince his words. “Assad has to go. It’s a question of when and how. You can not kill that many people and expect to remain legitimate and in charge of your people.”

So why did he try to mediate? “If you don’t talk to these people, if you don’t even try, how do you influence them? How do you get them to change their mind? How do you get them to understand what they are doing to their people and themselves?” But he now thinks that he arrived in Damascus both too late and too early: too late to nip it in the bud, too early because both sides were not yet tired of fighting. Meanwhile, there is no agreement at the Security Council, which makes a UN mandate impossible. There are regional rivalries at play that make a neighbourhood solution impossible. And the proposal that some people have made of imposing a no-fly zone in the north would require taking out Syria’s air defences which, in effect, would be a declaration of war and, therefore, impossible.

What, then, will happen in Syria? “Thousands will die.”