Diplomat in the middle

UN chief Kofi Annan tries to balance the demands of the US, Iraq, and 188 other nations

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, co-recipient of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize, is a pivotal player in President Bush's showdown with Iraq.

With Mr. Bush's Sept. 12 challenge to the United Nations to enforce its own resolutions on Iraq, or face irrelevance, the UN chief went into diplomatic overdrive.

Within days, Mr. Annan was touting a new deal in which Baghdad agreed to allow UN weapons inspectors to return "without conditions."

But two problems quickly emerged – and they underscore how crucial Annan's relationship with Saddam Hussein will be in the days ahead.

First, Iraq's leader seemingly agreed only to unconditional return of inspectors on Sept. 16, not to unconditional inspections. And second, Annan has cut deals with Mr. Hussein before, only to see him stonewall and humiliate the UN.

"The secretary-general won't apologize for trying to avoid conflict," says Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard. "That's his job."

Still, some observers wondered: Why does Annan continue to give a man with Hussein's track record the benefit of the doubt? How damaging is it to the UN, if not to Annan's personal credibility? And will he impede the American drive to oust Hussein?

"I know Kofi's in a difficult position, because a majority of UN members belong to the nations of the third world, and there have been lots of appeals to him to stop the Americans from moving down a certain path," says one Western UN diplomat. "I don't think he's unaware of what Iraq's trying to do, but what he did the other day eased the pressure on Iraq and didn't go down too well in Washington."

Indeed, by week's end, Iraq was already establishing a new condition: no more UN resolutions – nothing more beyond last week's agreement with Annan was needed.

The cover Annan seems to provide Iraq is of great concern to US observers. But that may be as much a trait of Annan as of the UN itself, critics say, as two tenets dominate the world body: No conflict is so intractable that it can't be resolved through negotiations, and national sovereignty must trump all.

The Iraq debate was put on hold at the UN Monday as the 15-member UN Security Council met in an emergency session. Early Tuesday, it passed a resolution calling for Israel to withdraw from Palestinian cities. The US abstained, officials said, because the resolution failed to mention the two militant groups responsible for bombing attacks in Israel last week. The US has vetoed similar resolutions in the past. Israel's UN ambassador, Yehuda Lancry, said the US abstention reflects a US desire to preserve good international relations ahead of military action against Iraq.

Annan became the UN's seventh secretary-general in January 1997. With three decades of service to the UN, the Ghanaian native was the first secretary general to be promoted from the ranks of UN staff. He emerged on the international stage in 1990, helping negotiate the freedom of international workers from Baghdad after Iraq had invaded Kuwait.

Later, he was head of UN peacekeeping operations during the Rwanda Hutu genocide of some 800,000 Tutsis in 1994, and in 1995 when Serbs overran the UN "haven" of Srebrenica and massacred some 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. Two years ago, Annan offered a mea culpa for the UN's inaction.

But Annan has also won praise for crusading against poverty and HIV/AIDS and for pressing corporations to respect the environment, human rights, and employment laws.

Last year, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the prize – over protests from Bosnian and Rwandan victims – jointly to the UN and Annan for working toward "a better organized and more peaceful world."

Nevertheless, critics find Annan's actions vis-à-vis Iraq disconcerting. His first serious foray into the weapons-inspections issue came in February 1998. Seven years earlier, Iraq had submitted to intrusive inspections in its Gulf War surrender. But political will on the UN Security Council gradually weakened – led by veto-wielding Russia, France, and China. Iraq had already extracted a 1996 concession that weapons inspectors not probe sites "sensitive" to national security.

In late 1997, Iraq demanded that eight "presidential sites" be off-limits, too. These were not merely "palaces," as much of the world media reported then. According to Richard Butler, who headed UN weapons inspections from 1997-1999, they encompassed 30 square miles and 1,100 buildings – "many of them warehouses and garages ideal for storage," Mr. Butler said in 1999.

Annan negotiated a compromise in Baghdad in February 1998 that permitted entry to the presidential sites – with diplomatic observers in tow. "This is a man I can do business with," Annan famously declared later, which in Butler's view was "signaling a major step toward the appeasement of Iraq." Annan, Butler said, "repeatedly tried to deal with the problems raised by an outlaw regime by papering them over with diplomacy."

Defending Annan, spokesman Eckhard says that "the Security Council has [since 1998] approved his acting as an intermediary between the Council and Iraq."

But 1998 still resonates, as Iraq indicated this past weekend a preference for the Annan-brokered agreements, while Washington wants to revert to the robust 1991 resolution. To do so would require a new resolution. Russia is threatening to veto.

And with Washington banging the war drums last week, it may have forced Annan to cut a deal with Iraq to temper the rush to war, says David Scheffer, senior vice president of the United Nations Association, a nonpartisan think tank, and former US ambassador at large for war crimes issues under President Clinton.

"It wouldn't surprise me if the secretary-general were trying to pace this whole process, to bring all the relevant parties together to confront Iraq, rather than have a fractured Council," Mr. Scheffer says. UN efforts will typically anger some party, he say, "that's just part of the turf. And last week it was the US's turn."

But, says Scheffer, who recently argued in the Washington Post that Hussein also be indicted for war crimes, the UN shouldn't treat him gingerly: "Anyone who deals with him needs to be inflexible about his compliance with UN resolutions."

Spokesman Eckhard says Annan will now shift to "working behind the scenes to foster unity on the Council. And he'll continue to have a preference for a political or peaceful solution over a military solution. That comes with his job description."

But one analyst suggests Annan might be an obstacle for American diplomats: he seems to operate as if Iraq were any other UN member-state.

"He's not going to be very useful because he's overly respectful of Iraq's national sovereignty, and that's not called for at this time," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Annan's spent his life as an international civil servant, where all the emphasis is on the sovereign authority of each state, and so on and so forth," says Mr. Clawson. "It's a real change to deal with a country that has been ordered to do something against its will."

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