Global Policy Forum

Secret Meeting, Clear Mission: ‘Rescue’ UN


By Warren Hoge

New York Times
January 2, 2005

The meeting of veteran foreign policy experts in a Manhattan apartment one recent Sunday was held in strict secrecy. The guest of honor arrived without his usual retinue of aides. The mission, in the words of one participant, was clear: "to save Kofi and rescue the U.N." At the gathering, Secretary General Kofi Annan listened quietly to three and a half hours of bluntly worded counsel from a group united in its personal regard for him and support for the United Nations. The group's concern was that lapses in his leadership during the past two years had eclipsed the accomplishments of his first four-year term in office and were threatening to undermine the two years remaining in his final term.

They began by arguing that Mr. Annan had to refresh his top management team, and on Monday he will announce that Mark Malloch Brown, 51, the widely respected administrator of the United Nations Development Program, will become Mr. Annan's chief of staff, replacing Iqbal Riza, who announced his retirement on Dec. 22.

Their larger argument, according to participants, addressed two broad needs. First, they said, Mr. Annan had to repair relations with Washington, where the Bush administration and many in Congress thought he and the United Nations had worked against President Bush's re-election. Second, he had to restore his relationship with his own bureaucracy, where many workers said privately that his office protected high-level officials accused of misconduct. In the week after the session, Mr. Annan sought and obtained a meeting with Condoleezza Rice, the nominee for secretary of state. United Nations officials said afterward that it was an encouraging meeting.

The apartment gathering on Dec. 5 came at the end of a year that Mr. Annan has described as the organization's "annus horribilis." The United Nations faced charges of corruption in the oil-for-food program in Iraq, evidence that blue-helmeted peacekeepers in Congo had run prostitution rings and raped women and teenage girls, and formal motions of no confidence in the organization's senior management from staff unions. Just days before the gathering, Senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican who is chairman of a subcommittee investigating the oil-for-food program, had brought criticism of the United Nations to a boil by calling for Mr. Annan's resignation.

The meeting also occurred at a moment when the United Nations faces major institutional challenges: the Jan. 30 balloting in Iraq that United Nations electoral experts helped set up; the preliminary report late this month of the oil-for-food inquiry led by Paul A. Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman. Now, the Asian tsunami is testing the organization's capacity for coordinating aid on a global scale.

The meeting was held in the apartment of Richard C. Holbrooke, a United States ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton. Others in attendance were John G. Ruggie, assistant secretary general for strategic planning from 1997 to 2001 and now a professor of international relations at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard; Leslie H. Gelb, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations; Timothy E. Wirth, the president of the United Nations Foundation, based in Washington; Kathy Bushkin, the foundation's executive vice president; Nader Mousavizadeh, a former special assistant to Mr. Annan who left in 2003 to work at Goldman Sachs; and Robert C. Orr, the assistant secretary general for strategic planning. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's ambassador to the United Nations from 1998 to 2003, was invited but could not attend.

"The intention was to keep it confidential," Mr. Holbrooke said. "No one wanted to give the impression of a group of outsiders, all of them Americans, dictating what to do to a secretary general." He described the group as people "who care deeply about the U.N. and believe that the U.N. cannot succeed if it is in open dispute and constant friction with its founding nation, its host nation and its largest contributor nation."

"The U.N., without the U.S. behind it, is a failed institution," he said. None of the participants would discuss the remarks that were made in any detail. "Secret advice, such as it is, is effective to the extent that it is kept that way," Mr. Ruggie said.

But one participant, who requested anonymity, said Mr. Annan remained quiet throughout the session and made no promises - nor was he asked to - at its end. "He sat in silence and made no effort to defend himself," the participant said. "He was taking it all in. It wasn't a conversation, it was much more of a, 'Here is the situation, here are the choices on what you can do.' " Mr. Holbrooke said that the talk, while unalloyed, was not confrontational. "There was nothing adversarial about it," he said. "Kofi knew he was in a meeting with people who cared deeply about him and about the institution."

In a telephone interview on Sunday, Mr. Annan said he felt the session had been "supportive and helpful," but said it was just one of many such meetings he had been holding. "I've been talking to lots of people here and abroad and within my own organization planning ahead for the next two years," he said. "It was part of that process. We did discuss how to improve relations with Washington."

One of the members of the group had prepared for the session by finding out if the Bush administration was siding with those in Congress who were calling for Mr. Annan's resignation or whether it would support his resolve to stay in office until the end of his term in December 2006. The official, a onetime senior government figure in Washington with close ties to the Bush administration, said he concluded that "they were not going to draw the sword against Kofi."

"Everyone I talked to, including the White House, said that if Kofi was going to go, it was going to be by the hand of the Volcker report, not by the hand of the Bush administration," the official said.

As for the staff's unhappiness with Mr. Annan's inner circle, Mr. Ruggie said: "I think there is a genuine concern in the building that senior management is not held accountable for their decisions, for bad judgments, for poor performance, and that must change. The Secretary General missed an opportunity at the end of the first term to re-energize his top team as an American president would do, for example."

Ms. Bushkin said of Mr. Annan: "My perception of what's happening is that he is preparing himself for the last two years, he's looking at his own leadership style and what it's going to take to get the job done. The last two years may require different skills in the people around him."

One top adviser who may be leaving is Kieran Prendergast, the under secretary for political affairs since 1997, who diplomats say is under consideration for the post of special envoy to the Middle East, which was vacated by Terje Roed-Larsen. Mr. Annan also has the opportunity to place new people in two other jobs that have become open coincidentally with the departures of Catherine Bertini, the under secretary general for management, and Jean-Pierre Halbwachs, the organization's controller.

The speakers also faulted the United Nations for the state of its public communications. "Throughout the building there is fairly low morale, which stems from the lackluster way in which the institution and the secretary general's office have responded to the oil-for-food charges," Mr. Ruggie said. He continued, "The attackers of the U.N. for too long have had a free ride in exaggerating the magnitude of the problem, sometimes deliberately distorting the facts, escalating their accusations and demands for his resignation, and frankly the response on the part of the U.N. has been inept."

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