November 15, 2006 | The New York Sun

The Courtier to Annan

Not so long ago, Kofi Annan was up to his ears in the Oil for Food scandal, and his legacy as the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations was on its way down the drain. He was ducking questions from his critics. But he did decide to cooperate to an extraordinary extent with one reporter, James Traub, a contributor to The New York Times Magazine. Mr. Traub wished to write a book about the U.N., and about Mr. Annan — whom he considered the incarnation of the institution.

Starting in June 2004, and continuing for more than a year, Mr. Annan let Mr. Traub shadow his activities, sitting in on meetings, tagging along on official trips and haunting the U.N.'s 38th floor executive offices. On at least 18 occasions, by Mr. Traub's count, they sat down together for one-on-one interviews. They spoke in Mr. Annan's office, lunched in his private dining room, and met at his official residence on Sutton Place.

Had Mr. Traub made serious use of this remarkable access, he might have written a real page-turner on the U.N. in crisis. Instead, he has produced “Best of Intentions: Kofi Annan and the U.N. in the Era of American World Power” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 442 pages, $26), a paean to Mr. Annan, packed with scenes that mingle hagiography with the lingo of an infatuated schoolgirl. In this tale, Kofi Annan figures as a sort of Hamlet of Turtle Bay, a “benevolent renaissance prince,” a “gentle soul,” and, above all, a victim not of his own failures, cover-ups, and hypocrisies, but of circumstance and conservative critics. Voilà: Mr. Traub has crafted for Mr. Annan, just in time for his retirement next month, the New Legacy.

Mr. Annan's choice of Mr. Traub as confessor and companion was, one might suppose, not entirely random. They have known each since 1998,when Mr. Traub first visited Mr. Annan at the U.N.'s New York headquarters. Mr. Traub recounts that Mr. Annan “came around from behind his desk and invited me to sit next to him on his black leather couch.” Mr. Traub found this “a trusting, almost intimate gesture,” which, combined with Mr. Annan's “wisp of a voice,” made for “a terribly seductive manner, if not necessarily a reassuring one.” Soon afterward, Mr. Traub became one of the reporters in tow “when Annan made his thrilling dash to Baghdad in February 1998, a plucky little Daniel in the lion's den of Saddam's murder factory, and emerged with a pact that prevented — well, forestalled — war.”

Actually, Mr. Annan emerged from that Baghdad dash with a declaration that he could “do business” with Saddam Hussein, and a deal to keep U. N. weapons inspectors in Iraq. The deal broke down completely in fewer than 10 months. Saddam then barred the weapons inspectors for the next four years, while Mr. Annan, to Saddam's huge benefit, repeatedly urged the expansion of the increasingly corrupt Oil for Food program. Mr. Traub concedes that the 1998 Baghdad trip was an “ultimately futile exercise.” But Mr. Traub emerged from this flop with a view of Mr. Annan as a “gentle, forceful peacemaker — a Gandhi, a Mandela.” If the world at the time agreed, boasts Mr. Traub, “I myself played a role in this mythmaking.”

He's still at it. In Mr. Traub's book, Kofi Annan appears as “the most gracious of men,””the least self-aggrandizing of men,” “open, honest and kind,” “sincere and selfless,” “the gentle, kindly African with the silver goatee and the rueful yellowing eyes.”There is the Kofi Annan “who recoiled from ambition,” the Kofi Annan “with his usual superhuman display of modesty,” the Kofi Annan of “Christlike forbearance,” and the Kofi Annan “trailing clouds of glory.” There is also the Kofi Annan who, in his “beautifully cut dark gray suits from Brioni,” together with his Swedish wife, projects “a kind of moral glamour”; Kofi Annan, whose “roundhouse handshake” amounts to “a kind of domesticated soul gesture”; Kofi Annan,”a spokesman for mankind who looked wonderful in a tuxedo.”

Small wonder that Mr. Traub is horrified to see this paragon hit by the “catastrophe” of the Oil for Food scandal — though his sympathy for Mr. Annan on this score suggests a strange inversion of priorities. Oil for Food was a betrayal of the people of Iraq, from whom Saddam was stealing billions intended for relief, and using it to re-arm and fortify his totalitarian regime. It was a trainwreck for a trusting (and tax-paying) public, from whom Mr. Annan during the U. N. debates withheld his inside knowledge of Saddam's graft, sanctions-busting, and global influence-peddling under cover of the U. N. program. It was a fiasco for the nascent New World Order, in which the United Nations effectively signaled to diplomats, politicians, and thousands of companies worldwide its willingness to collaborate in corruption.

So who's to blame? By this account, not Mr. Annan, although he was in fact responsible for administering the program, hiring the inspectors, handling the audits, and reporting periodically to the Security Council — which is why he was entrusted with a $1.4 billion budget to do so. But as Mr. Traub tells it, the real culprits were not those at the United Nations who ran Oil for Food, but the congressional watchdogs and “conservative media” who exposed it. Making a nod to the corruption, he then dismisses it as secondary to Mr. Annan's personal discomfort: “Oil-for-Food, for all the legitimate issues it raised, was Annan's punishment for having taken ‘the wrong side'” in the debate over the Iraq war. Describing criticism of Mr. Annan by congressional investigators, he says,”Evidence had nothing to do with it; now the knives sharpened on the whetstone of Iraq began to glint.”

Actually, evidence had everything to do with it. The overthrow of Saddam kicked open a hoard of secret documentation on Oil for Food. The United Nations's own investigation finally clocked in with allegations that the head of the program, Benon Sevan, had been on the take (Mr. Sevan, who has since retired on full U. N. pension, denies this); that there were signs of rampant corruption among some of the U. N. agencies; that Mr. Annan and some of his top aides had been derelict in their oversight, and that Mr. Annan's son, Kojo Annan, had used his U. N. contacts to try to influence procurement under the program. One of Mr. Annan's special advisers, Jean-Bernard Merimee, admitted to having profited from Iraqi oil deals. Another, Maurice Strong, was found to have accepted a $988,885 check bankrolled by the Iraqi regime. (He has denied any wrong-doing and said he didn't know the source of the funds.)

The facts in this book often take a back seat to bias. Mr. Traub demonizes America's official representative to the U. N., Ambassador John Bolton, as exceeding his authority simply by upholding American interests at the U. N. But Mr. Traub sees nothing wrong in President Clinton's former U.N. ambassador, Richard Holbrooke, who worked privately behind the scenes, together with his inside man in the U. N. Secretariat, Assistant Secretary-General Robert Orr, to orchestrate Mr. Annan's rescue and his attempts to sabotage Mr. Bolton.

In his zeal to shape the story, Mr. Traub is at times unintentionally funny. Describing Mr. Annan's documentshredding former chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, Mr. Traub writes: “It had never occurred to him that shredding files at the outset of a vast investigation that was bound to include his own activities would look bad.” And in his indifference to the nitty-gritty of Oil for Food, he makes mistakes. For instance, at one point he says that Mr. Annan set up the Office of the Iraq

Program, which ran Oil for Food inside the Secretariat, in March 1997; later in the book he says March 1998. Both are wrong. The date was October 15, 1997.

On the subject of Mr. Annan's Mercedes-buying son, Kojo Annan — where inside access should have been invaluable — Mr. Traub seems to have an especially hard time getting it right. Investigators' findings to the contrary, he dismisses Kojo Annan's connection to Oil for Food as “extremely tenuous.” And if he ever asked Mr. Annan about the Mercedes which Kojo Annan bought at a diplomatic discount and shipped duty-free to Ghana in the secretary-general's name and under the U.N. seal, he makes no mention of it. Instead, in the epilogue to his tale, Mr. Traub sets out to describe Mr. Annan's 2005 end-of-year press conference, at which a correspondent for the London Times, James Bone, did ask what had happened to the Mercedes. Mr. Annan — whom Mr. Traub has earlier described as someone “who never bridled at even the most impertinent question” — blew up. Instead of answering, he hurled a series of insults at Mr. Bone. It was a memorable scene, in many ways more telling than all the intimate chats chronicled by Mr. Traub.

But Mr. Traub gets it stunningly wrong. He mixes up Mr. Annan's insults to Mr. Bone with another set of insults Mr. Annan had delivered earlier in the press conference to a perfectly reasonable question from Benny Avni of The New York Sun. Mr. Traub compounds his mistake by insulting both reporters himself, saying that Mr. Annan was responding to a question by Mr. Bone that “mingled unsubstantiated rumors, half-truths, quarter-truths, and a few serious charges.” After Mr. Bone protested last month to Mr. Traub's publisher, Mr. Traub wrote a correction, which Farrar, Straus and Giroux has now agreed to include as an erratum insert in the book.

But even that correction is wrong. Mr. Traub, in his re-write, finally mentions the Mercedes, and grants that Mr. Bone's “question was legitimate.” But he goes on to say: “At that, Annan exploded, denouncing Bone as ‘an overgrown schoolboy' — apparently the most withering barb he would let fly in this public setting.” Not quite. Mr. Annan also used his official stage to tell Mr. Bone (who is a skilled and respected journalist), “You are an embarrassment to your colleagues and to your profession.”

Mr. Annan later told Mr. Traub that in the exchange with Mr. Bone, “It had felt good to ‘slap him down.'”The book draws to a close with Mr. Traub portraying Mr. Annan as a sort of gentle saint in a fallen world, a man who lashed out only because he believed “he had been unfairly blamed for failures not of his own doing.”

Mr. Traub's is a long and detailed narrative, and when he steps away from Kofi Annan's couch, he has some interesting tales to tell about the history and long-running dilemmas of the organization. But in his approach to the suffering secretary-general, he has far too much in common with the longtime members of Mr. Annan's inner circle, of whom he writes that they “were not sycophants,” but “they had been molded by the same kinds of experiences he had had, and they looked at the world very much as he did — which sometimes produced the same effects as sycophancy.” Access has its charms. But had Mr. Traub kept a greater distance, he might have written a better book.

Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.



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