United Nations in Crisis: The American Challenge

by Stanley Meisler

May 7, 2004

Crayenborgh Lecture
University of Leiden, The Netherlands

A case can be made that the American and British invasion of Iraq a little more than a year ago enhanced the moral force and international standing of the United Nations. The Security Council, after all, had refused to be bullied. Most of its members, even the weak ones, had stood up to the United States and made it clear they would not pass a resolution authorizing the invasion. The American failure to obtain UN authorization galvanized demonstrations throughout Europe and elsewhere against the invasion. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, the United States had no right to topple a tyrant, no matter how evil and dangerous, if the UN did not agree. The UN was clearly the world’s only anointed keeper of peace and war.

But this set off no celebrations at the UN. The UN refusal to support the war had provoked a great deal of American contempt. The hawks around President Bush had never wanted to fool around with the UN anyway. They now felt vindicated. President Bush branded the UN as irrelevant. Kofi Annan was scorned as a Neville Chamberlain. The UN knew it was in crisis.

The United States is only one of 191 member states of the UN General Assembly, only one of 15 members of the Security Council, only one of five with a veto. But American significance overwhelms these ratios. Too many governments fear, admire or depend on the US for the UN to operate well when the Americans decide to act like a bystander or a barrier. When the United States could not decide what to do about Bosnia in the early 1990s, the Security Council was paralyzed. When the United States opposed immediate action to stop the slaughter in Rwanda a few years later, the Security Council was paralyzed. The UN works best when the United States is aboard, cooperating and leading.

In 1993, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said, “I need the United States. The United Nations needs the United States. Finding the right relationship between the UN and the US may be one of the most important tasks of our time.” Boutros-Ghali never did find that right relationship. Three years later, he won 14 out of 15 votes in the Security Council in his bid for a second term as secretary-general. But the United States was the one member that voted no. That was enough. The veto ended the UN career of Boutros-Ghali.

The US-UN relationship has always had its ups and downs. The UN was an American idea. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted the Big Five after World War II — Britain, France, China, the Soviet Union and the United States — to act as five policemen insuring international peace. There was so much American enthusiasm for the UN at the beginning that I can recall myself, as a high school student, taking a blanket with me to Hunter College in the Bronx in New York City — the first home of the Security Council — so that I could sleep while waiting on line for a ticket to see the new council in action.

Then the Cold War came, and that dampened American hopes and illusions. The UN Security Council became a very weak body. Since both the United States and the Soviet Union had a veto, the Council could do very little — almost nothing, in fact — about an issue over which these two powers disagreed.

As the Security Council weakened, the Third World began to flex its muscles in the UN General Assembly. Every member of the UN has a seat and a voice there, but the Assembly has almost no power. The Assembly is a forum of ideas, a debating society, often a boring theater of flowery speeches. Third World nations, most of them former European colonies, dominate the General Assembly. During the 1970s and 1980s, these former colonies turned the Assembly into a pit of America-bashing and a good deal of Israel-bashing as well. This culminated with passage of the resolution equating Zionism and racism. The rhetoric during these years struck Americans as strident, hypocritical, one-sided and unjust. This era of overblown Third World oratory was a public relations disaster for the UN, and I think that this image of the UN — an organization of unfair bluster — still lingers among some Americans.

All this changed with the end of the Cold War and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The UN Security Council suddenly realized that it now could do anything so long as the United States and the Soviet Union agreed. The Security Council authorized the Americans, British and French to expel Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait, and they did so. There was a euphoric mood at the UN. There was a feeling among many Americans that perhaps now the UN Security Council was fulfilling the dream of Franklin Roosevelt and serving as the world’s policemen. In the words of Madeleine Albright, the Security Council had become an international 911 number — the phone number that Americans use when they have an emergency. If you were a nation in trouble, you could call the UN, and the Security Council would bail you out.

That euphoria soon dissipated, especially within the United States. Failures in Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda — all helped burst the balloon. A series of antagonisms developed between the UN and the US, descending to their low point with the American-led invasion of Iraq last year. I do not believe that the UN has ever been in a more precarious position than it was during the first few weeks of that war. What I would like to do today is discuss some of the key issues and events that led from euphoria to crisis in a little more than ten years.

The crisis in Somalia...

Let us look first at the crisis in Somalia during the 1990s. The United States had no real national interest in the security, economics or history of Somalia, yet the UN intervention in this impoverished country on the eastern horn of Africa was largely an American affair. In 1992, Americans were shocked by the television news footage of starving children caught in the chaos and bloodshed of feuding warlords in Somalia. In response to the public concern, President George Bush, the elder Bush, decided to dispatch 30,000 American troops to the ravaged country under UN authorization. Bush had just been defeated for reelection by Bill Clinton, but there is a lengthy transition between the election and inauguration of a new president in the United States, and Clinton would not replace Bush until almost two months later. The intervention was what we call a last hurrah — a final blaze of glory — for Bush.

Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali urged the Americans to disarm the feuding warlords, but the Americans, keen to avoid casualties, were satisfied with imposing order while the warlords hid their weapons. This allowed humanitarian workers to feed the population but offered no long-term solution to the Somali crisis. The Bush plan was to go in and go out quickly. American officials badgered Boutros-Ghali to put together a UN peacekeeping force as soon as possible to replace the American troops.

The Somali problem seemed difficult but soluble to the new Clinton Administration. In theory, the new foreign policy team comprised long-time supporters of the UN. Madeleine Albright, the new UN ambassador, liked to talk about her faith in “assertive multilateralism.” That phrase seemed to mean that the United States would do all it could to strengthen and cooperate with the United Nations while asserting leadership over it. The UN operation in Somalia would become a model of American “assertive multilateralism.”

The UN peacekeeping mission that replaced the American intervention force was tailor-made to American specifications. At American insistence, Boutros-Ghali named an American, Admiral Jonathan Howe, as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, the official in charge of the entire mission. A Turkish general well known to American officers through NATO was put in charge of the 20,000 peacekeepers. These troops came from many nations including Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Italy, Belgium and the United States. There was an American contingent of 3,000 troops offering logistical support and an American quick reaction force of 1,300. Unlike the other peacekeepers, the American troops did not report directly to the Turkish commander but to his deputy instead, an American major general. Later, the Americans sent an additional, special force of 400 Rangers and Delta Force commandoes equipped with helicopter gunships. They were even more independent, remaining completely outside of UN command and reporting directly to the US Central Command in Tampa, Florida.

The United States was so dominant that American officials even engineered the replacement of the undersecretary-general in charge of peacekeeping at UN headquarters in New York because they felt he was too hesitant over the use of force in Somalia. He was replaced by a little known Ghanaian named Kofi Annan. An American officer involved in peacekeeping planning at the Pentagon told me that the US regarded Annan as more “flexible.”

Then came the awful events of October 3, 1993, events dramatic enough to warrant making an American movie about them in a few years — Blackhawk Down. Admiral Howe had ordered a manhunt for the Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aideed. His followers had murdered 24 Pakistani peacekeepers in an ambush. On October 3, American Rangers mounted an attack on a house often used by Aideed, captured many of his lieutenants, and killed several hundred Aideed supporters. But the Americans suddenly fell under withering and unexpected counterattack. Eighteen American Rangers died in the botched raid. Many more were wounded. Two helicopters were downed. And in a terrible scene that infuriated the American public, jubilant Somalis could be seen on television dragging the dead body of an American Ranger through the streets of Mogadiscio.

The shock to American public opinion and the Clinton Administration was enormous. Quickly, almost instinctively, like frightened children, American officials tried to put all the blame on someone else. The Rangers had operated under US, not UN, command. There is no evidence that the UN mission even knew that the raid was going to take place. But the Clinton Administration did all it could to make sure that Americans believed otherwise. Officials whispered to reporters that the White House had known practically nothing about what was going on in Somalia; they blamed Boutros-Ghali and the UN for the debacle. Pentagon spokeswoman Kathleen de Laski insisted publicly that the raid was a UN operation. In a televised speech to the nation, President Clinton said that new Americans troops, who would be dispatched to Somalia to help a future American withdrawal, “will be under American command.” This, of course, left the false impression that the troops already there were not under American command. Newspaper editorialists picked up the White House theme and heaped scorn on Boutros-Ghali and the UN for the deaths of our troops.

The UN reacted slowly. Boutros-Ghali was probably the most intellectual of the seven secretary-generals who have led the UN in its history of almost 60 years. But he was too old-fashioned and courtly to master modern public relations. It took a couple of weeks before Boutros-Ghali began complaining to a few reporters in private that he was being made a scapegoat. That was too late.

The failure of the UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia severely damaged relations between the US and the UN. The US became wary of taking part in or even authorizing future peacekeeping operations. American officials found it convenient to scapegoat Boutros-Ghali and the UN in other crises. The personal relationship between Boutros-Ghali and American officials like UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright was poisoned. The philosophy of “assertive multilateralism” was abandoned. I do not believe that Albright ever used that phrase in public again while she was UN ambassador or secretary of state.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Madeleine Albright...

In the public eye in the United States, Boutros-Ghali took on the image of a bumbling international civil servant with an oddball name. The Republicans tried to capitalize on this in the presidential campaign of 1996. Patrick Buchanan, trying to win the Republican nomination, regularly denounced the Secretary-General as “Boo Boo Ghali.” Invoking the image of Somalia, Bob Dole, who won the Republican nomination, promised that he would never let the Secretary-General decide where to send American troops. The notion that a UN Secretary-General had the power to send American troops anywhere without American approval was, of course, absurd. But Dole’s pledge would arouse a good deal of cheering from his followers, especially when he pronounced the Secretary-General’s name as “Booootros Booootros Ghali.”

President Bill Clinton, a Democrat who defeated Dole easily in 1996, did not come to the defense of the UN and its Secretary-General. After all, Clinton and his lieutenants had made Boutros-Ghali a scapegoat in the first place. Moreover, Clinton could hardly come to the Secretary-General’s defense when Clinton’s UN ambassador was feuding with Boutros-Ghali in New York and openly vowing to prevent him from serving a second term.

The feud in New York is worth exploring a bit because it was both personal and somewhat institutional. Boutros-Ghali and Albright did not like each other very much — although they continually professed that they did. Perhaps more important, Boutros-Ghali, a professorial, enigmatic, aloof diplomat was fiercely independent, perhaps the most independent Secretary-General in UN history. But Albright and other Clinton Administration officials believed that the job of a Secretary-General was to carry out the wishes of the most powerful nations on the Security Council, not create policy on his own.

In her memoirs, Madeleine Albright, after recounting their differences on Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda, has this to say about Boutros-Ghali, “He was...hyper status-conscious and seemed to believe that administrative tasks were beneath him.” She also accuses him of hardly ever acknowledging a mistake and becoming “more and more critical of America” as time passed. “I concluded,” she writes, “that if UN-US relations were going to improve, the Secretary-General would have to go.”

As you might expect, Boutros-Ghali, who lost out in the feud, is even more scathing in his own memoir. In a typical putdown of Albright, he writes, "We had an apparently warm friendship, but warmth turned to fury the instant problems surfaced...Albright regarded them as a veiled attack on her competence.” He is very dismissive of this thin-skinned attitude. “Such sensitivity,” he says, “is not uncommon among unseasoned diplomats.” Boutros-Ghali marvels at how her “uncivil tongue” was winning universal praise in Washington. “The more she spoke rudely to other countries’ representatives,” he writes, “the more political approbation she received from her own countrymen.”

After Boutros-Ghali announced that he was seeking reelection to a second five-year term, both Albright and Secretary of State Warren Christopher made clear in public that the United States would veto his bid. At most, they offered Boutros-Ghali a one year extension, which he refused. Despite the threat of a veto, Boutros-Ghali, a stubborn and independent man, embarked on a quixotic campaign for reelection. His aides insisted that the threat against him was only a 1996 election ploy. Once Clinton was reelected, in their view, his administration would have a change of heart about Boutros-Ghali. Boutros-Ghali himself seemed to dare Washington. If American officials intend to veto a sitting Secretary-General, he told me, let them do it.

Boutros-Ghali’s campaign, in fact, fared better than anyone expected. He outmaneuvered American diplomats and won the endorsement of the Organization of African Unity. American resolve even weakened. According to Madeleine Albright, she and Tony Lake, Clinton’s National Security Advisor, had “a screaming match” over the issue at her apartment at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. “Tony said — I am quoting Albright — he’d never been sure it was the right decision to oppose Boutros-Ghali and I was on my own.” Albright says there was grumbling in the Administration about “the mess we had gotten into.”

But Albright stood her course and prevailed. Shortly after the reelection of Clinton in November 1996, Albright vetoed the reelection of Boutros-Ghali even though he won the vote of all the other 14 members of the Security Council.

The veto of Boutros-Ghali was followed by the election of Kofi Annan to take his place. Annan is a statesman of integrity, vision, quiet diplomacy, thoughtfulness and grace, and the UN is a better organization because of him and his international stature. But the American campaign against Boutros-Ghali hurt the UN badly. Americans could hardly feel good about an institution that had been led by an aloof and old-fashioned diplomat so openly despised by American leaders.

The Ideologues...

Although the Clinton crowd had some institutional problems with the UN and didn’t like Boutros-Ghali, they were not ideologically opposed to the UN. They believed it could be reformed and used. In their view of the world, there was a place and a standing for the UN.

But the Clinton Administration had battered the UN so much that it had few defenses left when the ideologues came to power with the younger Bush in 2001. The hard-line, right-wing conservative foreign policy team around Bush — sometimes called neo-conservatives, sometimes the Vulcans — had no place for the UN in their view of the world. They were ideologically opposed to the idea of a UN with any real strength.

During the years of the Clinton Administration, John R. Bolton, then senior vice president of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think-tank in Washington, had served as the resident critic continually throwing brickbats at the UN. In 1999, he berated Kofi Annan for claiming that the Security Council should be the sole source of legitimacy on the use of force. Bolton called Annan’s words “sweeping — indeed breathtaking — assertions” from someone who is supposed to serve “as merely a ‘chief administrative officer.’”

In 1997, Bolton even insisted that the US was under no obligation to pay its assessment for the UN budget. Although the US signed the treaty establishing the UN in 1945, Bolton wrote, “Congress can legitimately override any treaty provision it chooses.” In short, when the US receives its annual bill from the UN, according to Bolton, “Congress is fully within its rights to pay it, ignore it or do anything in between.” In the Bush Administration, Bolton is now undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. He is sometimes looked on as the neo-conservative mole in the State Department.

In fact, the neo-conservatives do not devote much of their writings to the UN. They have a couple of core beliefs. First of all, the United States, as the world’s only superpower, has the right and obligation to defend itself in any way it deems necessary, no matter what the rest of the world thinks. And, second, the United States, as the world’s greatest democracy, has the right and obligation to try wherever and whenever possible to remake the world in its image as a way of insuring international peace and tranquility. The UN does not fit into these ideas.

The invasion of Iraq...

I want to take up the war in Iraq now but only as it involved the United Nations. The UN involvement was significant, but it came in spurts — and so I will not attempt a coherent and full narrative of the war and its aftermath. But the UN highlights are fascinating.

President Bush took the issue of Iraq to the UN under pressure not from his Democratic opponents but from some of his supporters — his Secretary of State Colin Powell, his main ally Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, and the foreign policy team of his father, the first President Bush. I think that these UN boosters had different motives. Some opposed a war and hoped that the UN could somehow manage to prevent it with a lot of talk and diplomacy. Others believed that the United States needed authority from the UN before launching an invasion.

The neo-conservatives around George W. Bush had contempt for the UN and lobbied against going there. The President overruled them yet his speech to the General Assembly on September 12th, 2002 reflected a good deal of their contempt. “Iraq has answered a decade of UN demands with a decade of defiance,” he said. “...Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?” To prove its relevance, the UN had to do what the US wanted. If the UN did not do so, he went on, “the purposes of the United States should not be doubted.” Either Security Council resolutions are enforced, he said, “or action will be unavoidable.” His listeners had no doubt that these words amounted to a threat of an American invasion.

The hard-liners around Bush surely expected Saddam Hussein to thumb his nose at the US and the UN and continue his defiance. But Secretary-General Annan persuaded the Iraqis to accept the return of UN inspectors without any conditions. That was their only hope, he told them, to avert an invasion. He even helped the Iraqis write their letter of acceptance. The Bush hard-liners were furious at Annan for interfering. The Secretary-General may regard peace as his mission, but they looked on him as poking around where he did not belong. “He overstepped his bounds,” said one American diplomat.

The Bush Administration saw little use in inspections. Vice President Dick Cheney had insisted a few weeks earlier that “a return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of [Saddam’s] compliance with UN resolutions.” When the chief inspectors — Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei — visited the White House in late October, Cheney told them that inspections could not go on forever and that the US was “ready to discredit inspections in favor of disarmament.” Blix, according to his recent memoir, interpreted this to mean that if the inspectors did not find and destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction quickly, the US would do the job itself. When inspections resumed, according to Bob Woodward’s latest book, the US spied on Blix, and some top officials concluded he was a liar.

The Security Council resolution approved unanimously on November 8, 2002 — Resolution 1441 — was regarded as a kind of triumph by those who hoped that a new and tough round of inspections could avert war. The resolution declared Iraq “in material breach” of past resolutions requiring disarmament but offered it “a final opportunity to comply.” Iraq was threatened with “serious consequences” if it did not comply. In diplomatic language that was weaker than a threat of forcing Iraq to comply by “all necessary means” — the UN euphemism for war. In any case, the resolution contained no automatic trigger for action. If the inspectors declared that Iraq was not complying, the Security Council would discuss the matter further. I think that most members of the Security Council regarded the resolution as a recipe for peace. But the Americans did not.

Looking back, I cannot see how war could have been averted by the UN. There is no way that the US would have accepted a finding by the inspectors that Iraq was free of weapons of mass destruction. The continual belittling of the inspectors made that clear. The US insisted the weapons were there and believed that only incompetence kept the inspectors from finding them. The UN had only one real function in American eyes – to authorize war. If it did not, it was irrelevant. This attitude transformed proceedings at the UN into theater more than anything else. But it was exciting theater.

Under pressure from Prime Minister Blair, a reluctant Bush Administration turned again to the Security Council in February 2003. Now the US wanted a resolution authorizing war. This set the stage for Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech marshaling all the evidence of supposed Iraqi deceit. It was widely billed as Powell’s Adlai Stevenson-like moment. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, Stevenson, the American ambassador to the UN, had confronted, derided and embarrassed the Soviet ambassador by presenting irrefutable evidence that the Soviets were placing long-range nuclear weapons in Cuba. That is often regarded as Stevenson’s finest moment at the UN. In fact, Powell’s speech was more like Stevenson’s worst moment at the UN. In 1962, during the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Stevenson had stood up in the Political Committee of the General Assembly and unknowingly lied about American involvement. He had not been told the truth by the White House. He was so embarrassed by the deceit that he considered resigning.

“My colleagues,” Powell told the Security Council, “every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.” Yet the case he made was largely circumstantial and has proven mostly exaggerated conjecture based on faulty intelligence. But Powell is a figure of such prestige and a symbol of so much integrity in the United States that his advocacy devastated any American opposition. If someone as cautious and as wise and honest as Colin Powell accepted the stated cause for war, then war was justified or, at least, it was inevitable. We now know, of course, that Powell opposed the war during White House deliberations but, like a good soldier, marched on and carried out the orders of his commander-in-chief.

The Security Council soon turned into a pit of intense arm-twisting and cajoling with the Americans trying to win support for a war resolution and the French trying to stop it. Of course, the French could have and would have vetoed such a resolution, but the Americans wanted to show that, even if French and Russian vetoes killed a resolution, a majority of the Council supported war. In the end, the Americans could not muster a majority and withdrew the resolution. The French opposition caused bitter resentment in the United States. Washington felt that a country in danger — as the US described itself — should receive unquestioning support from its allies. The French were derided as weasels and surrender monkeys, and, as we have all heard, the name of French fries was changed on many menus to Freedom fries.

On the eve of the war, Secretary-General Annan warned that if the US invaded Iraq without authorization from the UN, “the legitimacy and support for any such action will be seriously impaired.” This notion was quickly rejected by the White House. “From a moral point of view,” said Spokesman Ari Fleischer, “...the UN will have failed to act once again” if it did not support the war.

The outbreak of war devastated morale at UN headquarters. UN officials probably never felt so impotent before. In fact, they actually did feel irrelevant. After Iraqi defenses collapsed, the Security Council passed a resolution proclaiming that the UN would have a “vital role” in relief, reconstruction and the development of democracy. But the main purpose of the resolution was to recognize reality. The United States and Britain were acknowledged as the occupying powers. No matter how “vital” the UN role might be, the occupiers were the ones legally responsible for relief, reconstruction and the development of democracy. The UN role would be secondary. It would serve as little more than a kind face of the occupation.

Morale was battered even more in August 2003 when a suicide bomber exploded his truck outside UN headquarters in Baghdad and killed 23 UN workers, including the popular and skillful chief of mission, Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil. I have a feeling that the Secretary-General felt a terrible responsibility for having allowed his people to face lethal danger just so that the UN could have some kind of role in Iraq. To the consternation of US officials, who liked having the UN around as a kind of humanitarian cover, Secretary-General Annan soon withdrew all UN personnel from Iraq. The UN was a depressed place.

But events move swiftly in Iraq. Now, less than a year later, the UN really does have a vital role in Iraq. The American-British occupation is a mess, and the Americans are hoping that the Secretary-General’s representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, can pull them out of it. A UN official has suddenly became our knight in shining armor. In fact, it sometimes seems that Brahimi is the only plan the US has left for Iraq, the last hope for stability. When asked at his April 13th news conference to describe the nature of the Iraqi government that will receive sovereignty at the end of June, President Bush replied, “We’ll find that out soon. That’s what Mr. Brahimi is doing.” That was an odd answer from someone who once derided the UN as irrelevant.

Brahimi came to Iraq because the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most important Shiite leader, objected to the cumbersome American plan for creating a transitional government that would prepare the country for elections. He demanded immediate national elections instead. That demand would be dropped, he said, only if the UN persuaded him to do so. At the request of the Americans, the UN sent Brahimi to mediate. After talking with many Iraqis including the Ayatollah, Brahimi agreed that the proposed American plan was unacceptable but concluded that elections had to wait. Iraq needed more time to organize them. Brahimi, after a second trip, came up with a new plan for a caretaker government of technocrats. A UN-appointed president and prime minister would take over on June 30th, pending elections six months later.

Brahimi is a former foreign minister of Algeria with decades of experience in diplomacy and UN conflict prevention and peacekeeping. He has dealt with many difficult leaders like Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo and Jean-Baptiste Aristide in Haiti. He helped put together the government that is trying to run Afghanistan. He is a statesman without frills or arrogance or duplicity. When asked questions in public, he speaks his mind. Unlike Paul Bremer, who often acts like an old colonial governor, Brahimi does not issue edicts by fiat. If you read his recent statement to the Security Council on Iraq, you will see that he works by testing opinions and building consensus. He acts as if he is not proposing policies but merely serving as a messenger carrying the views of Iraqis to the UN. He also is not afraid to challenge American ideas, and he is diplomatic enough to praise the US when it adopts his suggestions. The Brahimi reports are a good reflection of the UN at its best. But that does not mean that he is guaranteed success.

No one at the UN is gloating about this latest change in fortunes. American right wingers — including people around Bush — are nervous about turning too much over to the UN. A new anti-UN campaign has already begun. Right-wing columnists are complaining about alleged corruption in the old Iraq Oil-for-Food program, about anti-Israel remarks from Brahimi, about the UN’s failure to stop genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s. I have even heard commentators disparage Kofi Annan as a coward for pulling his people out of Iraq. And many Americans are still reading Christian thrillers that feature the Secretary-General of the UN in the apocalyptic future as the Anti-Christ.

There are obvious pitfalls for the UN in Iraq. It is not clear how much authority the UN will have. The UN may serve only as a convenient cover. The Americans clearly intend to run most things after June 30th. If a stable and representative government emerges in a year or so, the Americans will take credit. If Iraq is still a mess, they will probably blame the UN. As Singapore Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani told the New York Times recently, there are two nightmares for the UN in Iraq. The first is to be excluded. “The other,” he went on, “is to be completely included.” My own feeling is that the antagonistic relationship between the US and the UN will not change no matter what the UN accomplishes in Iraq.

There is an irony in this. Kofi Annan is a skillful administrator, a man of good will and a statesman of enormous moral integrity. He is served by a hard-working, sensitive and intelligent staff. In fact, I doubt if the UN Secretariat has ever been more competent. This is recognized throughout most of the world yet ignored by the US. The American mishandling of the UN is an awful waste.

May 7, 2004
University of Leiden, The Netherlands

This lecture was given as part of the Crayenborgh Lecture Series for the History Honours Class at Het Crayenborgh College at the University of Leiden in The Netherlands.

Stanley Meisler is the author of Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War and United Nations: The First Fifty Years.

see also:

Obama and the United Nations (pdf)
January 18, 2008

Transparency at Ban Ki-Moon’s United Nations
January 22, 2007

Kofi Annan at the UN: An American Waste
December 4, 2006

Defaming Kofi Annan
September 10, 2006

Bolton and History
March 24, 2005

Badgering the United Nations
March 2, 2003

Kofi Annan and the Nobel Peace Prize
October 30, 2001

The Revenge of Boutros Boutros-Ghali
July 21, 1999

Getting Rid of Boutros-Ghali
October 18, 1996

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