9 September 2005

Anyone doubting that Paul Volcker and Kofi Annan share the same agenda should contemplate for a minute their declared purpose. In his most recent report, Mr. Volcker formed his message in a capsule: "The inescapable conclusion is that the U.N. needs reform and needs it urgently." That, precisely, is what Mr. Annan has been claiming to be his role. The timing of his third reform drive which coincided with Mr. Volcker's appointment may raise questions about an attempt to deviate attention and deflect responsibility. The timing of Volcker's much-anticipated report which stressed the need for reform a few days before a summit devoted to reviewing reform proposals reflects that joint agenda.

Besides sharing mutual friends on the same wavelength, banker Volcker and Secretary General Annan have demonstrated a similar approach of dumping on the U.N. in order to salvage its most noted symbol. When its a negative, "we" are accountable; when it is a credit it goes to the man. Thus, Volcker seemed to make a special effort to avoid criticizing Annan personally. Instead he "found" that "the cumulative management performance" fell short of the standard that the U.N. should strive to maintain" (makes you long for Alan Greenspan). In a similar vein, Annan told the Security Council, in a sad sight for any international civil servant, that the scandal was "deeply embarrassing to US ALL". Dedicated U.N. staff took exception to that reference. So did Justice Goldstone, a Committee member, in responding to BBC's Kathy Kay. No, he confirmed, there are many devoted hard-working U.N. staff who do outstanding work. Those really culpable should be embarrassed.

The mutual consideration continues further in Volcker's affirmation that Annan is well-respected at the U.N. and Annan saying: "We need to look at this as an institution -- as an institution we did fail." The stage was, then, set. So was an inclination to package the message.

One day before the 7 September report, a seemingly management report appeared in the influential Financial Times. Its U.N. correspondent Mark Turner, who said he had seen a summary, reported an intended message. There was a need for stronger leadership (obviously); there were problems with the way member states elected the Secretary General (any Secretary General, mind you) with no special attention to managerial skills. "There was a grievous absence of effective authority" and "a palpable absence of authority for the auditors." It's a financial and accountants' problem, you see. Turner's twist was undercutting the organization to defuse the accountability of the current Secretary General whose main reported weakness is weakness.

However, a hurried curried attempt to peddle "talking points" to in-house media did not entirely work, although there were the usual takers. Instead, that attempt, eventually exposed by the persistent Claudia Rossette, backfired.

But, perhaps, we should go back, very briefly to the beginning.

About 10pm the day Paul Volcker produced his first report, U.N. senior staff were informed by the Secretary General that he has taken disciplinary action against Benon Sevan and Joseph Stephanides -- both, by the way, from Cyprus. The following day, the only one to call Mr. Sevan was Controller Jean Pierre Halbachs (known affectionately as J.P.), who wondered how was he bearing up in the circumstances. The former head of Oil-for-Food Program responded by thanking him and mentioning in passing that "Kofi" surprisingly has not called to at least notify or explain.

About half an hour later Benon Sevan - who was still using his office - received a call from the Secretary General. Mr. Annan wanted to indicate that he was thinking of his long-time colleague. He repeatedly urged him to have "courage" and carry on in the face of upcoming challenges. When Sevan said he was "furious," Annan asked him about Micheline, his wife, and Yasmine (his brilliant and beautiful young daughter who was bearing up heroically under the circumstances). Sevan responded that they were also furious. The Secretary General concluded by, again, extolling the virtues of courage.

Clearly, no phone call was forthcoming this August when Mr. Volcker's third report came out pointing the main finger at the former head of Oil-for-Food. By then, Mr. Sevan was back home in Cyprus, having left New York well beyond reach three days before an expiration of his G-4 visa. And the beleaguered Secretary General had too much on his plate (plus a twisted shoulder), to place a call to Nicosia. Anyway, by then also the handling has moved to other hands, that is "Image" expert, new Chef de Cabinet Mark Malloch Brown. He was the one who presented the report and responded to questions. To predict the next steps, one will have to follow his thrust. It could come in considered statements or careful leakage particularly to two resident reporters -- an Englishman and an Anglophone American, both representing key newspapers. From now on, major moves will be stage-managed. Except for unexpected interventions or unintended exposures, the main themes had been agreed and the main deals understood among producers, directors and main actors. Upon his appointment, Mr. Malloch Brown told someone that he was moving from a suburban theatre (UNDP) to Broadway (the Secretary General's office). In a sense, that may strikingly apply here.

Mr. Volcker was appointed by Mr. Annan who provided him with over thirty million dollars, plus four more. He no doubt expects him "to leave no stone unturned" in order "to get to the bottom of all this." Maybe we're now approaching the bottom or the exit, but not quite yet. In the first scene, as the "investigation" starter, Mr. Volcker's briefing reflected a considered view that the U.N. Secretariat was not as influential (or as culpable?) as most people assumed, because it was the governments that actually decided. To what extent some Secretariat people influenced decisions by delegates was left open. The first report reflected that trend, giving some tantalizing details though "found no evidence" against the Secretary General, who must have misread the scene and rushed to exonerate himself. Not yet he must have been told; that's for later. Summertime, and the livin' is easy, is just for nailing down the obvious. An in-between scene exposing the fall guys would keep the show alive. Already, a key potential player has been crippled and placed himself out of reach. One day before the Volcker August report, Benon Sevan resigned and his lawyers circulated a set of documents. The experienced survivor had underestimated his former allies. While basking in the Mediterranean sun, he may now be wondering whether they had strung him along throughout the holding-hand period. He certainly knows enough about everyone -- he was a hands-on manager, not a parachuted diplomat. Did he really believe that they're all in it together, or are there facts which only he and they know? And who are "they"? Are they -- as Crosby, Stills and Nash used to sing -- "One person, two alone or three each other"!

The real curtain raiser came in September. A Volcker report was available about the same time as over 150 heads of states assemble for a special summit. It also happens to be the session before last for Annan who will be leaving end of next year. Could it be that all that tension was building for some form which could be interpreted as a personal "exoneration?" That, with the help of trained stagehands, could prompt those visiting heads of state to give Kofi Annan a standing ovation. Wouldn't that be worth those $34 million? Not when you know that the whole world's a stage, and men (like Volcker), and women are merely players. They have their exit and their entrances playing many parts -- sometimes in a Midsummer Night's Dream and other times as Hamlet!