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IA-Forum Interview: Stanley Meisler

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IA-Forum speaks with Mr. Stanley Meisler, author of the books "Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War" and "United Nations: The
First Fifty Years." He also spent thirty years working as a Los Angeles Times foreign and diplomatic correspondent.


International Affairs Forum: You’ve written a biography of former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. How successful was his time in office?

In my view, he’s probably the most influential Secretary General since Dag Hammarskjold. Hammarskjold was the second Secretary General and he was very active at the time of the Suez crisis and during the Congo crisis, when the Congo became independent and the place went into turmoil.

Now the big difference between Annan and Hammarskjold is that Hammarskjold had US backing on everything, while Annan had to deal with the U.S. in a different way. For example he opposed the war in Iraq, and the war in Iraq became the central issue during the period when Kofi served as Secretary General. So he had to deal with this problem of being pushed aside by the U.S., and I would say he was very weakened by that. You can't say he accomplished as much as Hammarskjold.


IA-Forum: What do you believe were Annan’s most notable achievements?

The main thing is that he set down the principles of intervention in a country for humanitarian reasons. You have to understand that the U.N., until very recently, stuck with the policy that the borders of each country were more or less sacrosanct - you could not interfere in the internal affairs of any country. Annan, through a series of speeches, set down that if a country or government suppresses or abuses a population or a minority within its borders, that this can become an international problem - should be an international problem - and that the U.N. therefore had the right to intervene. Now the principle has pretty much been accepted, and resolutions have passed dealing with the internal affairs of a country, for example in Sudan.

The problem has been how do you put that into practise, because while the principle is accepted, the countries voting for the principle in the case of Darfur for example, well nobody wants to send peacekeepers into an area, a country, that is going to oppose them.

This principle worked best in two places. One was East Timor, where Annan got on the phone almost everyday with the president of Indonesia and finally persuaded him that his army not only couldn't prevent the killings in East Timor, but that his army was actually the main perpetrator and that he had to accept peacekeepers led by Australian troops. Another area where it was accepted was in Kosovo, where NATO decided that the Serbs were abusing the Albanians in Kosovo and that it should intervene. Now this was not the U.N., but it was a regional organisation willing to do this.

The second thing he did was basically to maintain the relevance of the U.N. throughout the Iraq crisis. When the Americans invaded Iraq, morale was very low at the United Nations and for example Richard Pearle, a leading neoconservative, wrote a column for Britain's Guardian in which he said that this invasion would get rid of two things. One it would get rid of Saddam Hussein, and two it would get rid of the U.N. The view around the White House was that the U.N. was irrelevant, and this was one of the arguments that President Bush made - that the U.N. was incapable of handling the situation, so the U.S. had to go in and do that. But at the end of Annan's term the U.S. wasn't talking this way anymore, it had turned to the United Nations for the ceasefire in Lebanon and tried to get sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program. So even the US didn't stick to the line that the U.N. was irrelevant. I think this is a major accomplishment, although the U.N. is still weaker than it has been in the past.


IA-Forum: How damaging do you think the oil for food scandal will prove to be for Annan’s legacy?

Definitely he shares a guilt or responsibility for a lack of supervision. Bribery was going on between merchants and the Iraqi government and neither the U.N. Secretariat or the Security Council was monitoring things very closely. But one of the key things is that the people who fanned this scandal the most, and in fact exaggerated what was going on, were the people that were angry with Kofi Annan not because of oil for food, but because he opposed the war in Iraq.

In fact the scandal began with Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi most responsible for persuading the U.S. government that Iraq was full of weapons of mass destruction, who really pushed the scandal over oil for food. Politicians then began to exaggerate even the amount of money involved. For example, the commission appointed to look into this pointed out that about $12 billion was involved in covert payments to Iraq, of which $2 billion was the oil for food program. About $10 billion was smuggling by mostly Turkey and Jordan, with the acquiescence of the United States, who felt they were the two countries most hurt by sanctions and that therefore the United States would wink while they smuggled oil out of Iraq and smuggled goods into Iraq. The accusations would always use the general figure, including the smuggling, even though most of that figure had nothing to do with the oil for food program.

The problem for Kofi also was that his son got involved in a minor part of oil or food and hid the fact from his father that he was being paid by some companies to help that country get a contract. You can't blame newspapers for reporting this heavily - his son hurt him a great deal. I think in the long run, this will not be looked on as besmirching his image. But it will take a while for people not to think of the scandal of the U.N. under Kofi Annan.


IA-Forum: What do you make of the start made by the new Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon?

The problem for Ban Ki-moon is that the people who selected him, notably the U.S., hoped he would be very different from Kofi Annan. He may be different in the sense of not making as many speeches as Kofi Annan - trying to push various ideas and taking initiatives. But I think everyone in the long run will find, even Ban Ki-moon, that the job of Secretary General has evolved in such a way that he can't be just an administrator making sure that all the files are in the right place, and simply doing a few tasks that are assigned to him. In fact the Security Council meets almost every day now, and handles five or six problems at the same time. It is constantly asking the Secretary General for suggestions and to implement various resolutions and to use his creativity to come up with solutions. So there is no way the Secretary General can become inactive, and I think Ban Ki-moon will become just as active as the others have been in the last few years.

In one regard though he may be very different. I would say the Annan administration has been the most transparent in U.N. history, in the sense that Annan wanted the world to know as much as it could about how the U.N. operated. The spokesman for the Secretary General sat in on all policy meetings so that then when they would meet the press they would know what they were talking about, and if there were questions they would know what the answers really were. This was not the same, for example, when Boutros Boutros-Ghali was the Secretary General, when the spokesman would not know what he was planning or what decision he had made, and be forced therefore to brief out of ignorance.

I have a feeling that is going to be true with Ban Ki-moon as well. In his first interview with the New York Times he boasted that in Seoul the reporters used to call him, when he was South Korea’s foreign minister, the slippery eel. That's bad news not only for reporters, but also the world at large and the U.N.


IA-Forum: What should Ban Ki-moon’s priorities be?

I think the continuing problems – Darfur, for example, has to be settled. What you have to think about is that the major political issues of the day, such as North Korea, become the major issues for the Secretary General, and this is true more and more. It was true that in the Cold War the Security Council was paralysed, and would just get together and have its picture taken once a month and the Secretary General didn't have to do much. But that’s all over. Now the Security Council meets every day.

I'm far more concerned that the Secretary General get involved in these military and political issues than I am about the developmental issues. I'm also not too excited about the reform issues. It's actually kind of a phoney issue. Most of the people calling for reform, for example in the United States, don't really want to reform the U.N., but want to weaken it or drive it out of business. So there's no way of satisfying them. There are certainly reforms needed at the U.N., and the Secretary General can advocate them. But I don't think it should take up too much of his time.



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