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DOES PABLO PICASSO EMBARRASS KOFI ANNAN?

2/24/2003

Talk about a culture of peace, a Nobel Prize for Peace, or indeed an Organization of Peace. When it comes to attempting to please, basic objectives or cultural icons will not stand in the way.

Apparently the historically famous and culturally valuable Picasso artwork "Guernica" which had been prominently displayed near the approach to the Security Council seemed to bother some spinners who passed the word to some networkers who promised to do something about it. As Maureen Dowd aptly pointed out in the "New York Times," the day U.S. Secretary of State Powell was to brief the Council, some did not feel at ease about the possibility that the head of one of the victims may pop up on the background briefing by Mr. Blix; it would also be visible to cameras displaying delegates entering the chambers to discuss the threat of war over Iraq; it may also appear behind the shoulder of the Council president as he briefed the press after the meeting. So, the painting was covered by a curtain and flags of Council members. Ironically, among the flags abused to cover the masterpiece of the Spaniard who resided in Antibes were those of Spain and France. Fortunately, the cover was undone after a scandalized response but the harm was done to the embarrassment of the U.N. and -- frankly -- to the Secretary-General. After all, Picasso is Picasso and none of those masquerading as decision-makers around Kofi Annan can touch the tip of his creative brush.

In fact, symptoms of the growing influence of "curry in a hurry" approach were apparent much earlier. At the first of the Secretary-General lecture series, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison enthralled a packed audience with a literary masterpiece on the spirit and language of peace. However, two speakers immediately took the floor attempting to puncture her impact. The first was the moderator, supposedly the "resident" intellectual, who was supposed to allow others to ask first. He wondered whether such peace pipe talk was relevant during these tough days. As if on cue, he was followed by the then acting head of the Public Information Department -- also a close aide of the Secretary-General -- who invoked the wartime rhetoric of Winston Churchill. The puzzling intervention by an official conveyor of the U.N. message (and an Indian at that) was explained as a farsighted networking ploy. Maybe, just maybe, a message would trickle to Washington, where the President is known to be an admirer of the British leader. That was a long way from the days when keen attempts were made to join the Clintons' Renaissance Club in Hilton Head. At that time, the Secretary-General publicly overruled his two aides urging staff to practice the language of peace in their daily work. However, that was the first and last lively -- or even live -- lecture in that series. The ones that followed were downgraded to non-events where hardly-known speakers and their entourage outnumbered genuine participants.

Kofi Annan deserves everyone's support particularly at these difficult times. He is not at all helped, however, by some clearly identified people who are openly promoting their personal agenda and exploiting his prestige while violating basic rules and disregarding established standards of international civil service. The longer he allows them to do so, the more likely he will become vulnerable.