Kofi Annan's Legacy

By Jim Hoagland (THE WASHINGTON POST, 03/12/06):

UNITED NATIONS -- The melancholy of a decade of might-have-beens mixes with a deep fear of what might yet be as Kofi Annan prepares to leave his 38th-floor global pulpit at the United Nations. But the secretary general's silky voice also betrays a determination to spend his final month in office warning the world of grave threats to its moral and physical existence.

Iran, Iraq, the Middle East and Sudan's Darfur region dominate the final day-to-day business that the career diplomat from Ghana conducts. But he is also delivering a series of thoughtful speeches examining nuclear proliferation, human rights and global governance so that "these issues don't drop off the radar" after he puts down his U.N. megaphone.

As we begin a conversation about his legacy -- easily the most active and therefore most controversial record of a secretary general since Dag Hammarskjold gave the job meaning during the Cold War -- Annan surprises me by going quickly to his concern that the West may underestimate Iran's resolve in pursuing its nuclear program.

"I have told the United States and Britain to be careful, to be sure that the Iranians don't come out of a Security Council debate laughing" because sanctions are not adopted by a divided body, he says. Later Annan adds: "Iran feels itself to be a powerful nation. Its president looked me in the eyes" and said exactly that.

Annan says the simultaneous confrontations with Iran and North Korea demonstrate that "you can't do nonproliferation on a case-by-case basis. You have to find a real mechanism" to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to new states or even terrorist groups. That is likely to happen only if recognized nuclear states begin to fulfill existing treaty obligations to eventually give up nuclear weapons, rather than continually modernizing them.

Iran's new self-confidence also suggests that Tehran will not easily agree to U.S. overtures to engage in talks about Iraq, as conventional wisdom in the foreign policy community now recommends. Tehran will instead relentlessly bargain for U.S. concessions as a price for joining a dialogue, in the view of Annan and others.

That possibility was forecast in the contacts that former secretary of state Jim Baker had with Javad Zarif, Iranian ambassador to the United Nations. Iran has no interest in a dialogue limited to Iraq, as Baker suggested to him, Zarif has told diplomats here. Instead, talks must include security guarantees for Iran as a topic.

The might-have-beens of Annan's two terms center on his rocky relations with the Bush administration, which have left scars on both sides. Some U.S. officials treated him "as an enemy" at times because of his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, Annan tells me.

"The United States has a natural leadership role to play in this organization," says Annan, who is American-educated, came to office with strong U.S. support and has worked hard to develop a broad constituency for the United Nations among American private-sector and nongovernmental organizations. "It can get a lot done." He pauses. "But no one nation can always have its way. It has to be possible to disagree" and still work together.

"Iraq has set us back on many issues," including one of Annan's proudest accomplishments. That was to get the United Nations to endorse an international "duty to protect" citizens from their own abusive governments.

In today's polarized atmosphere, it is much more difficult to get governments to take on the burden of humanitarian intervention in places such as Darfur, Annan believes. So he has had to engage a devious Sudanese government in an exasperating political negotiation for getting an effective peacekeeping force into that country.

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- his troubles with Washington, Annan is actively pushing for a regional conference to help resolve Iraq's instability and permit an orderly U.S. withdrawal: "Everybody has an interest in getting Iraq right."

A standing conference intended to last for months, not a few days, and one that would include the major Security Council powers as well as Iraq's neighbors, is his preferred option. The United Nations would sponsor such a meeting, if asked, he predicted to the Iraq Study Group headed by Baker and Lee Hamilton.

The day is late, and the light coming in from the sky over Manhattan's East River is fading as I ask Annan a final question: How should his successor, South Korea's Ban Ki Moon, go about restoring U.S.-U.N. relations?

"My only advice to him about this job is to do it his way. I did it my way, which was to try to work with the United States while being the secretary-general of all United Nations members."