WASHINGTON -- As Kofi Annan walked into the crowded salon at the Council on Foreign Relations here Thursday, there was not a sound to be heard. He looked dignified and deeply serious, this true man of the world who is increasingly being targeted by far-right, anti-United Nations Republicans as a way to kill off the U.N. with one grand stroke.
"Thank you for coming here in such large numbers," he began, with just the slightest smile on his lips. "I must have been in the news lately."
Then he began soberly addressing the oil-for-food scandal at the United Nations, by which Saddam Hussein skimmed off billions of dollars of oil revenue during the 1990s, as well as the ancillary and separate oil smuggling scandal.
"We have to get to the bottom of these allegations," he said, referring to Paul Volcker, the respected former head of America's Federal Reserve who is in charge of the U.N. investigation. "All of our employees have been instructed to take part in his investigation or face dismissal."
He went on to speak of threats to the United Nations itself -- how the world had changed since the organization was founded with such jubilation and hope after World War II -- and in particular, of how the "actors" on the world stage had changed. "The attacks on 9/11 were a wake-up call," he said, his mood still very sober. "We live in a dangerous world. Instead of the state actors of the original U.N., we now have cross-border actors who affect us all. We are threatened by terrible, deadly weapons, by genocides, by deathly disintegration, by environmental degradation and organized crime.
"Yet in responding to these threats, we are deeply divided. That is why I say that the international community stands at a fork in the road. These threats will not wait for the world, and we must not wait for them to master us.
"The only organization that can deal with this is the U.N. It is not perfect, but there is no better instrument in the face of global threats. We must agree with a plan to reform the U.N. and get on with it."
The reform plan, conceived by a top-level panel, is now on the books -- and in fall 2005, the current Swedish ambassador to Washington, Jan Eliasson, a particularly accomplished diplomat, will move to New York to put it into place.
But there is another side of the moral equation here. The radical, far-right Bush neocon forces want above all else to shame Kofi Annan as the prime malefactor and cut off funding from the U.S. Congress, destroying the United Nations for all time.
If we are talking about personal morality or public integrity, perhaps it would be instructive to take our eyes off the East River for a moment and look toward the Potomac. These days, Washington isn't looking exactly like a Baptist Sunday school, either.
When the secretary general was speaking Thursday, for instance, the council should have also invited former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, the far-right's all-time favorite "tough guy." In HIS question-and-answer session, instead of talking about peacekeeping across the world, he could have discussed his alleged ties with organized crime, his secret marriages and love nests, and his conflicts of interest over stun guns and homeland security (although, for some strange reason, they always get these guys on nannies and taxes).
Actually, before and after the secretary general's speech, there WAS a lot of discussion in the audience about another of President Bush's moral and ethical choices -- in this case, the awarding this week of the prestigious Presidential Medals of Freedom. Of all the great Americans who could be so honored, President Bush gave it to three men who do, indeed, represent something grand: three components of one of the grandest failures in American history.
There at the White House proudly stood fired CIA Director George Tenet, who had told President Bush it was a "slam dunk" case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, wearing the splendid medal. There, too, was L. Paul Bremer, who dissolved the Iraqi army and Baath party on a utopian whim, leaving Iraq (and us) in the chaos and anarchy of today. And finally, there was Gen. Tommy Franks, who refused even to try to put enough troops on the ground to make the disastrous war work. (How could they have forgotten all the neocons, whose delusionary power madness started this war? A clerical mistake, perhaps?)
So, somehow it didn't seem wrong for Kofi Annan to ask the world to wait at least until next month, when the Volcker report would be finished, in order to seriously assess blame for possible U.N. failures. If only there were such a report forthcoming on the Iraq war and its royally bemedaled planners.
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