25 June 2004

It's Kofi Annan tapping Bill Safire on the shoulders. "May I have a word with you," he enquired. The conservative pundit who dubbed the U.N. Food for Oil Program "Kofigate" braced for an icy rebuke; or at least a precise vehement and overwhelming point. Instead, Annan "in his courteous way," assured him that a committee was looking into all this. He also had its designated chairman, Paul Volcker, call him. That was a right tactic, but a wrong strategy. Volcker was Safire's colleague in the Nixon administration. They may influence one another, but in what way? The former chairman of the Reserve Board ended up complaining that he was not getting adequate assistance from the Secretariat and the former speech writer had a headline saying "Tear Down This U.N. Stonewall" with another subtitle: "End Containment of Corruption."

No other Secretary General in U.N. history placed himself in such an awkward situation. In confronting any serious attack, it was the institution that responded. Dedicated staff with loyalty exclusively to the Secretary General would rise immediately to action. When they felt that they shared in belonging to the organization and internal decision making, any hint of criticism was met with a joint response. But when the institution was overlooked in promoting individuals and when cliquish attitudes fragmented hard working staff, then the ability to respond is limited to those personally involved. Leadership is inspiring a team -- the whole staff -- not cultivating a clique. When the team is sacrificed to advance only an inner circle, the leadership becomes vulnerable.

The Secretary General is the living symbol of the U.N. Every international civil servant would be hurt when his reputation is hurt. A main problem now, as Food for Oil questions are being raised (and Rwanda, Cyprus, etc.), it is the current Secretary General who is directly handling his own "defense," approaching his own media and experimenting with his own viewpoints on issues which others should have shouldered.

It took at least one month for anyone at the U.N. to respond in any manner to damning accusations. Benon Sevan, with thirty-five years of service, was left to twist in the wind. The Secretary General's son was named reportedly in more than one case. Almost every main media organization questioned the U.N. performance and propriety. Only much later, possibly too late, some dreary letters to the editor were sent -- only to solicit a stronger attack. His speechwriter cum Communications Director has turned into an avid letter writer, to no avail. His Spokesman is deluged with queries which he answers professionally as appropriate. His Under Secretary General for Public Information, his former Special Assistant, made the necessary statements but he has a department to run and a future to pursue. And now Kofi Annan seems to be a victim of his own habit of having to say something as he enters the building in the morning -- and he is not exactly an early morning person.

Who is in charge of defending the U.N. with the media? Who is leading the troops? Who are the troops? Knock Knock. Who's There?