Bidding farewell to Kofi Annan and Donald Rumsfeld

Though radically different, each shared a passion for relieving the ills of mankind.

Two men whose names were known around the globe, and who held positions of power and authority, left office last week.

Both had been lauded for their stature and ability: one of them as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the other in generous remarks by the president of the United States.

Both were hailed for their accomplishments, but both by the time of their departure had lost the confidence of their respective constituencies.

One was Kofi Annan, the Ghana-born but Americanized secretary-general of the United Nations. The other was the onetime Navy pilot and corporate chieftain-turned-US secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.

I was fortunate to have worked with both men in earlier roles.

In the UN regime of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Mr. Annan was in charge of UN peacekeeping, the disposition of troops contributed from many nations to keep the peace in troubled areas around the world, notably the Balkans. In the US administration of Ronald Reagan, Mr. Rumsfeld was special negotiator to the Middle East, reporting to Secretary of State George Shultz.

Both Annan and Rumsfeld were brilliant in different ways but could not have had more diverse personalities. Annan was soft-spoken, gracious, and – switching easily between English to French – the diplomatic persuader. Rumsfeld was intense, driven, the impatient fixer in search of solutions.

Annan set out to tackle the UN's bureaucratic torpor and reform the political process that hampered critical decisionmaking. His tenure was overtaken by scandals that eclipsed the UN's positive accomplishments, and by the blatant self-interest of powerful nations that stalled response to humanitarian demands.

Rumsfeld set out to modernize the US military, creating smaller, fast- moving units that could respond to regional warfare with new 21st- century technology. His concepts worked well in Afghanistan, where the Taliban was swiftly dispatched, and in Iraq, where fast-moving US forces reached Baghdad in days and ultimately captured Saddam Hussein. But thereafter, long months of turmoil, debilitating urban guerrilla warfare, and scandals such as the one at Abu Ghraib prison, lost the patience of the American people and cost Rumsfeld his post.

Both Annan and Rumsfeld, two decent men caught up by events, are like characters in a Greek tragedy. Annan opposed the Iraq war; Rumsfeld supported it. Yet both were motivated by concern for mankind and a passion for freedom.

For his farewell address, Annan chose to speak in Independence, Mo., at the presidential museum and library of President Harry S. Truman, who was instrumental in founding the UN. Annan, who came from his West African homeland at age 19 to study in the US, spoke warmly of the US being in "the vanguard of the global human rights movement." But in a clear reference to the Bush administration, he added that this could only be maintained "if America remains true to its principles, including in the struggle against terrorism." He added a strong appeal for multilateralism, rather than unilateral action without UN support.

Missouri was also the state chosen by Winston Churchill for his famous post-World War II speech warning against Soviet expansionism. In a fierce defense of democracy, Churchill warned that an "iron curtain" had descended across Europe. The Soviets, he argued, could be kept at bay only by an alliance of the then British Commonwealth and the US, though he was careful to say that this should all be done under the umbrella of the UN, a fact which must have been in the mind of Annan when he chose the location for his farewell.

Rumsfeld's departure was marked by President Bush's presence and praise at a splendid parade at the Pentagon with drums and ruffles and bugle blasts. True to the last, Rumsfeld shared Mr. Bush's belief that the military venture into Iraq was an essential assault against tyranny in that country, and part of a noble campaign to bring freedom to Iraq and other nations of the Middle East. The US embarked upon it with slender tangible support beyond that of Britain and Australia. This lack of support, in Bush-Rumsfeld thinking, was a consequence of impotence in the face of Iraq's defiance of UN resolutions.

Though Annan and Rumsfeld shared a common passion for relieving the ills of mankind, they were diametrically opposed over the means to accomplish it.

Now a new UN secretary-general, Ban Ki Moon of South Korea, and a new US secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, succeed them. Probably they, too, will learn that spreading democracy to the lands of Islam is fraught with complexity and challenge.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, was assistant secretary of State in the Reagan administration and an assistant secretary-general at the UN to Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

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