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THE "UNSINKABLE" KOFI ANNAN CRITICS CONVERGE AS SOME OF HIS TEAM PURSUE THEIR OWN AGENDA

5/1/2003

First it was the fallen Iraqi government that accused Kofi Annan of "firing the first bullet" of the war by withdrawing U.N. observers from the borders with Kuwait and interrupting the Oil for Food operation prior to the military hostilities. A series of critical articles followed in the Arab press which prompted a somewhat lame attempt to handle it by sending out some amateurish responses in banal Arabic clearly prepared by someone who hardly knows the region. A timely interview with "Al-Jezeera" was defensive and missed the opportunity to clarify the main points. In an elaborate television interview, Prince Hassan, former Crown Prince of Jordan, made a royal swipe by referring to criticism of the Secretary-General by Africa's historic figure Nelson Mandela who blamed Annan for tacitly or passively allowing matters to deteriorate without standing up to denounce the war. Some British papers, like the independent, usually supportive, raised questions about the "unsinkable" Kori Annan. While the Secretary-General was being scapegoated by those against the attacks on Baghdad, he eventually was attacked by some U.S. media for not giving "adequate" support or for remarks they found "offensive." The influential "Money Line with Lou Dobbs" CNN daily program attacked Annan at least once a week. When a viewer from Minnesota (where Annan had studied) emailed a complaint suggesting an apology, Mr. Dobbs responded that it was Annan who should apologize (viewers of that day were not informed what for). Then came the indirect questioning of a Secretary-General statement at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva by the U.S. Ambassador there. While the role of the U.N. after the war was being debated, the Secretary-General again came under scrutiny. When he canceled an announced visit to Paris, Moscow and Bonn immediately following a U.S. / U.K. summit in Belfast, some speculated he did so under pressure or to avoid provoking further ire. The logistical -- and logical -- explanation that he was invited to a European Summit in Athens did not seem to satisfy some speculators that the honeymoon was over.

There may be a growing air of controversy about the incumbent Secretary-General who until now has enjoyed mostly favourable media coverage even when the organization itself was under attack -- in fact, some of his aides seemed sometimes to be fueling such attacks to present themselves as bold reformers. In the long run, however, the U.N. and its Secretary-General could not be entirely separated.

Despite his controversial approach, Kofi Annan is not unfamiliar in handling personal controversy with a cool, calm and collected approach. From Personnel to Budget to Peacekeeping to his current position, including those trying days in Bosnia, he managed to pull through, even stronger, with a little help from his friends but basically by drawing on his inner strength. A possible handicap this time is that some member of his team may be branching out on their own with their own agenda, "cleaning their doorstep" as the French would say, with one eye on him and another on the prospective bandwagon.