15 September 2006

How could you have a secret mission when you announce it in advance at a press conference? Seated in Jeddah next to Saudi Foreign Minister, Mr. Annan told assembled reporters that both Israel and Hezbollah had agreed to his good offices to facilitate a prisoner exchange. That sounded like impressive news. Then he proceeded to declare that he will appoint a secret mediator who will move around secretly to accomplish a secret assignment. "I will not tell you his name," he said almost with a teasing smile as if challenging reporters to find out.

They certainly will. Actually, Mr. Annan's office will leak it -- if it has not yet done so -- in return for some spin.

That public announcement of a secret mission reminded us of another so-called secret envoy to release western hostages in Lebanon in the early nineties. Terry Waithe, a very tall husky courageous decent God-fearing Englishman stayed around the Commodore hotel, headquarters of foreign correspondents. He would hint that he was about to meet hostage takers in a secret rendezvous, "but, please don't follow me." Of course they would; and everyone would be lost in the back alleys of Baalbeck. Eventually, Terry "Tam Tam" -- as he became known locally, possibly for drumming up attention -- was himself taken hostage, only to be released with others in a truly secret U.N. mission.

Anyway, back to our topic. By the time our Secretary General reached Cairo, the "mediator envoy" became a "facilitator." With Egypt's Foreign Minister, its former U.N. Ambassador Ahmad Aboul Ghaith by his side, he hoped that "my facilitator will be able to work expeditiously with the parties to come forward with a solution acceptable to the parties." That is, the party of the first party, which does not recognize the party of the second party. Turns out Israel had let it be known, "entre nous" and "entre temps" -- that is, between Jeddah and Cairo that the Secretary General should ASSIST NOT MEDIATE. Thus Mr. Annan obligingly responded to a question as follows: "Let me say that a better word is facilitator; that I am appointing a facilitator to work with the parties on the issues of the abducted Israeli soldiers and the Lebanese soldiers." But, then, there are NO LEBANESE SOLDIERS involved. It's Lebanese prisoners; that's why the careful reference to "parties." If it was soldiers on both sides, it would be between two governments.

Actually, Mr. Annan had raised the matter with the Lebanese government during his Beirut visit. He seemed very anxious to carry with him some information or movement to Jerusalem. When he approached Parliament Speaker Berri who was charged to handle the issue immediately after the kidnapping, the experienced leader surveyed the inquisitive eyes of those around the Secretary General and responded that matters were now out of his hands; he had no information at all. Maybe, he suggested, Hezbollah's representative in the government, Mohammed Fneish, could be the one to talk to. Mr. Annan sought out Fneish, suggesting a side meeting -- with Gere Pedersen tagging along. The solemn, "triste" looking Hezbollah man did what is usually done in such cases. Start with a complaint. The U.N. credibility was at stake, he pointed out. They had wanted to accommodate their esteemed guest; the party's leader Sayyed Nasrallah would have personally welcomed him were it not for security reasons. But what your envoy Terje Roed Larsen was saying and doing was not helpful at all. It is causing harm and raising suspicions, etc...It was then that Gere Pedersen intervened, not necessarily to defend his compatriot but possibly to salvage the situation. These statements were misunderstood, quoted out of context, he interrupted. Suspicious bells must have started ringing as the excessively cautious Lebanese Southerner was dotting the "i" and connecting one "sen" with another from Pedersen to Larsen. Suddenly he was not really handling that issue. It was "entirely in the hands of our esteemed big brother Mr. Berri."

It may be that the Secretary General overestimated the influence of Syria on Hezbollah leadership. Despite a close alliance, in these difficult days for Syria in Lebanon and internationally, it may be that Damascus needs that fighting party, rather than the other way round. Asking Syrian officials to help in the soldiers' release, particularly with the carrot of a political Middle East settlement, would not hurt, but may not help much. Tehran, yes; it has close connections although Hezbollah has its own Lebanese connections and very much needs to highlight its Lebanese credentials, particularly as some of its influential adversaries accuse it of playing Iran's card.

While all indications point to agreement by Iranian officials to support the Secretary General's efforts, any mediator or facilitator -- secret or otherwise -- has to be very careful in balancing Iran's influence with Hezbollah's Lebanese dimension while taking into account growing internal pressure on the Israeli government. While the "Greater Guide" Ayatollah Khamenei, the real power is Iran, did not have time to see the distinguished international visitor, the argumentative president Ahmadinejad devoted an hour and a half to him -- symbolically important in a society guided by symbols. Some around the Secretary General may have tried to play to Western reporters by whispering how "shell-shocked" they were at the Iranian's pontifications. Fact is, Mr. Ahmadinejad assured Mr. Annan they were "fully behind him" and will support his good offices on the exchange between the kidnapped Israeli soldiers in return for Hezbollah dead or imprisoned fighters. Another fact is that discreet arrangements had been made much earlier in advance by several individuals, including someone who still pulls some threads within Mr. Annan's circle, to ensure that the visit regarding resolution 1701 gets positive results, regardless of the spin to accompanying Western reporters.

While publicly shifting gears on the prisoners' issue, the Secretary General looked increasingly vulnerable on another priority, this time for the Lebanese: the lifting of the Israeli blockade. Even before his arrival in Beirut, a daily paper reported that he will announce "good news" upon arrival. After leaving, a "senior international source" told another daily, As Safir, that it will be only a three day wait. Three days later, after a visit by the Secretary General's representative, the Minister of Defense told the media he understood the blockade will definitely be lifted within a day or two. The minister even went into some detail claiming -- as he heard from his visitor -- that "Mr. Annan was very tough with the Israelis and spoke to them in no uncertain terms that action should be taken right away." When nothing happened and all members of Parliament joined in staging a permanent sleep-in until the blockade was lifted, there was "hopeful" news from Mr. Annan. Between Saudi Arabia and Egypt the matter was in hand. At a press encounter in Cairo, he promised delivery within the next "48 hours." By Istanbul he was wistfully telling some of the reporters traveling with him that the situation was like "in a stock market." Little did he realize that his own stock was not rising, to say the least. As the Prime Minister, the Speaker of Parliament, and other key politicians contacted him and analyzed his every word, there was a growing consensus that he was either not capable to deliver or merely stringing them along. The Foreign Minister announced that "we will break the blockade with whatever we've got." Parliament speaker warned that if the blockade continued with Annan's 48-hour promise unfulfilled, Parliamentarians will themselves fill an airplane, which will challenge the blockade. Almost symbolically, the blockade was lifted after Mr. Annan left the area for Madrid en route to New York.

Having reporters around is always a good idea. A better one is not just to keep a straight face but a straight line. Perception at most political moments may be reality. But reality can change perceptions.

In the final resort, particularly when "a legacy" is at stake, GETTING RESULTS is what really counts. Whether it is a mediator, facilitator, or special envoy, it is the Secretary General himself that should be directly and personally handling these issues. Regardless of difficulties -- and there are plenty -- basic work is in place. There is unnecessary confusion possibly due to too many "Little Chefs" on the U.N. side and very complex issues on the ground. But that should not discourage outgoing Mr. Annan from soldiering on. And while he should give his mediator, facilitator, or whatever designated envoy enough leeway to accomplish an effective job, it is the Secretary General who bears the brunt or takes the credit. Therein lies a serious challenge -- and a great opportunity -- for Mr. Annan's real legacy. And time is short.