Fourteen years ago, Kofi Annan, then the U.N. secretary general, embarked on a desperate mission to Baghdad to persuade Saddam Hussein to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back in the country. Miraculously, he succeeded. And for his pains he was awoken in the middle of the night and browbeaten by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who worried that he had caved to Saddam. When he returned to New York he was mocked for saying that he could "do business" with the Iraqi dictator. Serving as interlocutor-with-evil is a thankless job.
Annan is of course in the midst of another such mission, this time as U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria, where he has presented a to President Bashar al-Assad in the hopes of ending the mass killing of civilians. In recent weeks, Assad had made Annan look like a naïve devotee of peace-at-any-price by first accepting the plannd then systematically trampling on its terms. And then, last Friday, government forces and local militias systematically slaughtered more than 100 civilians, most of them women and children, in Houla, a group of villages in the province of Homs, proving beyond any doubt that Assad has been cynically using Annan to buy time for his own plan, which is to kill and terrorize his opponents. The time has come to thank Kofi Annan for his services and send him back home to Geneva.
I have known Kofi Annan for as long time, and it is true that he has a temperament peculiarly well-suited to situations of powerlessness. He is a gentleman who speaks ill of no one, and thinks ill of only a few. He does not wear his dignity on his sleeve, or anywhere visible at all. He does not upset apple carts, a habit which may have contributed to his inactivity in the face of slaughter in Bosnia and Rwanda when he was the head of U.N. peacekeeping. It's the part of him I admire least.
But for a U.N. diplomat, powerlessness is a fact of life; it's much easier to represent a superpower. In the summer of 2004, I watched Annan sit quietly in a blazing hot office in Darfur while Sudanese officials piled one inane lie on top of another. Didn't he know they were jerking him around? Of course he did, he told me wearily. But what was the point of delivering threats? "I don't," he said, "see anybody rushing in with troops."
And that's the real point. Albright and the Clinton administration let Annan go to Baghdad when they saw how little appetite there was in their own base for airstrikes against Iraq (though they launched a few strikes later that year when the deal Annan negotiated fell apart). And years later, Annan tried to speak reason to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir because the Security Council wasn't prepared to punish him for mounting a campaign of ethnic cleansing and murder in Darfur.
Annan finds himself in the same predicament in Syria today. Arriving in Damascus three days after Houla, Annan condemned the “tragic incident,” and said that his “message of peace” was intended “not only for the government, but for everyone with a gun.” Annan knows perfectly well that responsibility for Houla lies with the regime, but he also knows that Russia, a key player on the U.N. Security Council, insists on blaming both sides for the violence. And, of course, that even Assad’s toughest critics in the West won’t soon be rushing in with troops or airstrikes.
Annan is no pacifist. In the late 1990s, he championed the doctrine that came to be known as "the responsibility to protect," which stipulates that when states fail to act to stop atrocities, other states have an obligation to do so. But Annan does believe that sometime atrocities can be halted, or prevented, with diplomacy rather than with force. He and others did just that when they mediated between the opposing sides after a disputed election in Kenya in late 2008 led rival tribes to slaughter one another. That was an effort worth making; so was his high-wire act in Baghdad in 1998; so was the mission to Damascus. But it no longer is.