Monday, Apr. 26, 2004

Kofi Annan

If a computer were to design the perfect U.N. Secretary-General, he or she would look something like this: African born; European and American educated, with decades of service in the U.N. system; married to a European; and possessing a quiet charisma and calm authority as chaos swirls.

That the U.N. in 1996 found such a person to restore its sense of direction and purpose was a near miracle. But out of the U.N.'s failures in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda came Kofi Annan, the career international civil servant who had participated in these disasters yet somehow survived and learned from them. When the situation in Bosnia reached its low point in August 1995, Annan, as acting Secretary-General, authorized the NATO bombing of the Bosnian Serbs that paved the road to the Dayton Peace Agreement. That action, more than anything else, convinced American officials, including me, that he was the best possible person to lead the U.N.

Today Annan is in the middle of his second term. His task is not finished, and the U.N is still far from what it should be. But Annan has tested the limits of the job, accumulating more authority—one cannot use the word power, given the constraints the U.N. system places on him—than any of his predecessors.

His complex relationship with the U.S. government is little understood. When Annan takes positions in public that are not pleasing to the Bush Administration, it unleashes its attack dogs. Yet when Administration officials found their policies in Iraq floundering, they asked the U.N. to bail them out. Some observers told Annan that he should not help the U.S. out of its jam. But he knew that his larger responsibility was to the cause of stabilizing Iraq. He began to work toward the decisive date of June 30, when the U.S. will hand over control to Iraqi authorities and an uncertain, highly volatile situation will prevail. Whether Annan, or anyone else, can succeed in Iraq will be determined by factors way beyond his, or anyone else's, ability to control. But it is Annan's destiny to be handed the very worst problems, and then only after they have been unsuccessfully addressed by others. Anyone who knows him knows he wades into such problems with his usual blend of courage, self-control, modesty and optimism.

Holbrooke is the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in the Clinton Administration

From the Archive
Dealing With Saddam: In an exclusive TIME interview, Kofi Annan defends a pact made with "difficult customers"