Man in the Middle

Travels with Kofi Annan

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The trip would take Kofi Annan, the Secretary- General of the United Nations and a Nobel Peace laureate, first to Vienna for a meeting with Iraqi officials and then to Africa, where he would visit four nations in eight days to continue his particular brand of relentless yet soft-spoken diplomacy. Annan, 64, has been with the U.N. for 40 years, but unlike many career bureaucrats, he doesn’t shrink from trouble and is said to grow calmer as a crisis mounts. He has represented the world body in international and civil conflicts in Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, East Timor and other hot zones, and he oversaw the U.N.’s 70,000 peacekeeping troops and civilian workers from 1993 to 1996. The next year he became the seventh Secretary-General—the first to rise through the U.N. ranks and the first black “diplomat in chief.”

After the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, about which he said “we have entered the third millennium through a gate of fire,” it seemed especially important to observe Annan in action. So one day this past July, I found myself sitting on a chartered Boeing 737 at New York’s Kennedy Airport with the Secretary-General’s entourage when Annan walked up to me shortly before take-off. He touched my shoulder and, alluding to the days I covered the U.N. for the Los Angeles Times (for five years in the 1990s), gave me a warm greeting. “It’s good to see the old warrior back,” he said.

He has a soft voice and speaks English with a British- African lilt. He was born into a prominent family in Kumasi, Ghana, a British colony from 1874 to 1957, where his father, Henry Annan, managed a Lever Brothers subsidiary that exported cocoa before working for the British as governor of AshantiProvince. Kofi’s mother, Victoria, was a homemaker. His twin sister, Efua, died in 1991. Young Kofi (the name means Friday, the day he was born) started college in his home city but won a Ford Foundation grant and finished at MacalesterCollege in St. Paul, Minnesota, receiving an economics degree in 1961. He went on to graduate studies in economics at the Institut Universitaire de Hautes Études in Geneva and, a decade later, earned a master’s degree in management at MIT. Tellingly, his most advanced academic training is in getting things done.

It was after attending school in Geneva that he went to work for the U.N., as a low-ranking World Health Organization functionary. Except for an unhappy interlude running the Ghana tourism bureau from 1974 to 1976—where he said he “couldn’t move the system, there was too much red tape, too many roadblocks”—he would spend his entire career with the U.N., taking posts in Geneva, Addis Ababa, Ismailia and New York.

Annan’s colleagues trace his climb to the top of the vast U.N. bureaucracy, comprising some 15,000 employees, in large part to his efficiency, evenhandedness and dignity. “It is difficult to imagine how straightforward he is,” says Lamin J. Sise, a Gambian who has worked with Annan for a decade. “His style is very open, very inclusive. And he is that way with everyone, whether you are a king or a queen or a man in the street.” Annan was Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping when the U.N.’s police role was growing fast; though initially expected to handle only administrative and budget matters, he ended up running field operations and making policy. Turns out he was good at it and earned the admiration of diplomats and the U.N. elite alike.

Annan’s approach as Secretary-General differs from that of his predecessors. He’s a world apart from Kurt Waldheim, of course, the Austrian known to some reporters as “the Headwaiter” because he was so obsequious to the United States and the Soviet Union; Waldheim ultimately brought disgrace to the U.N. office when it was revealed that he had been a Nazi Students League member and served in a German Army unit that arrested thousands of Jews and sent them to Auschwitz. Temperamentally, Annan is a mirror image of his predecessor, Boutros Boutros- Ghali, an Egyptian intellectual who struck some observers as arrogant and alienated some diplomats, particularly U.S. Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright. In Annan’s view of the U.N.’s overarching moral authority, he is perhaps closest to Dag Hammarskjöld, the Swedish political economist, diplomat and mystic poet who was awarded a posthumous Nobel Peace Prize in 1961 after trying to negotiate an end to civil war in the Congo and dying in a plane crash in Central Africa. Annan was then about to begin his U.N. career, as he pointed out in his 2001 Nobel address, in which he said Hammarskjöld and fellow Peace laureate, South African antiapartheid activist Albert Luthuli, “set a standard that I have sought to follow throughout my working life.”

Swedish statesmanship is something of a theme in Annan’s life. He’s married to Nane Cronstedt, a Swedish artist, lawyer and social activist—and a niece of Raoul Wallenberg, the heroic Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis at the end of World War II. Annan and Cronstedt met in 1981 when both worked in Geneva for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. They married in New York three years later. He has two grown children from a previous marriage, and she has one. In addition to painting and sculpting, she works on behalf of AIDS education and other U.N. causes and has written a book about her experiences accompanying Annan on official visits. The couple, who live in the official Secretary-General residence in Manhattan, blaze through the city’s highest circles, counting Mayor Michael Bloomberg among their friends. Annan is the “social star of New York society,”William H. Luers, the former president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, told the New York Times. Annan said he accepts social invitations and attends functions during the week (the couple reserve weekends for themselves) because the city is so vibrant that “on any subject—you name it—you’ll find someone to discuss it with.” Others divine a deeper motive, speculating that Annan recognizes the value, as few other U.N. leaders have, of mixing with important people outside politics. A clue to his effectiveness as a diplomat appears in a Times photograph of him at a Manhattan soiree with Microsoft CEO Bill Gates: Annan is doing the listening.

Annan, who is also fluent in French and a few African languages, parries as well as any diplomat, but he isn’t glib. He seems completely at ease with himself, and is often more candid than one might expect. He once told a French interviewer that he had trouble recruiting African troops to serve on U.N. peacekeeping forces because some African leaders “probably need their armies to intimidate their own populations.” And he’s egalitarian in his approach to on-the-job training. He told me he likes to meet with former leaders—to learn from their mistakes.

Nothing has tested Annan’s skill and resolve, nor tried the patience of U.S. leaders, more than his negotiations with Iraq. In 1998, Annan flew to Baghdad to negotiate an agreement with Saddam Hussein to allow U.N. inspectors to go anywhere in the nation. “Saddam is very calm and polite,” Annan told British author and journalist William Shawcross at the time. “He looks like somebody’s uncle. But if you mistake his calmness and soft-spokenness for weakness, you’re in trouble.” In that conversation, Annan invoked a comment famously made by his wife’s uncle, Wallenberg: “To do good, you sometimes have to deal with the devil.” After the Iraqis signed the agreement, the United States suspended plans to bomb Iraq, and Annan was hailed as a hero. But Hussein soon reneged on the deal, and U.S. and British forces bombed military and suspected secret armament sites throughout Iraq for four days.

Annan had been duped by the Iraqi leader and made to seem weak before the whole world. Senator Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican, accused him of “appeasement.” Despite setbacks, Annan keeps trying. “In the kind of work I do,” he told me, “whenever you have the opportunity to try to help avoid a conflict, even if you can save only one life, it is worth it. To try, and then to fail, is not something I consider a discredit.”


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