Some headlines seem designed to invite a one-word rejoinder, and so it is with a recent article on Slate: “How Kofi Annan Can Save Syria.”
Obvious answer: Resign.
Not that it would necessarily save Syria, were Annan to give up his role as UN-Arab League joint special envoy. But it would be a good first step. In the matter of saving Syria, it is probably the only step that Annan is capable of delivering.
But that’s not what Annan is doing, and that’s not where the Slate article goes. Instead, it urges a doubling down by way of “unqualified support” for Annan, described here as “the best diplomat we have.”
No surprise, since the author is former U.S. diplomat Christopher Hill, harking back to his glory days in the 1990s, negotiating the Dayton Accords. From his current perch as dean of the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, Hill argues that in Syria, Annan has understood “that any lasting political settlement must not be a triumph for one side or the other.” Instead, Hill urges “serious and sustained negotiations among interested international powers.” He adds, “Most importantly, all of the plan’s stakeholders then need to support Annan, publicly and privately.”
Where to begin? If Kofi Annan is the best diplomat we’ve got, then it’s about time the human race wrote off diplomacy as a failed field of endeavor. Annan spent most of his career in UN administration, with performances that ranged from mediocre to morally obtuse. As head of UN peacekeeping in the mid-1990s, his priority was the “neutrality” of UN stakeholders (to parrot the UN lingo), while genocidal mass murderers had their bloody triumphs in Rwanda and at Srebrenica. The UN stakeholders then chose to promote Annan in 1996 to secretary-general. That was a decision that should have raised serious questions about UN priorities and values, rather than being accepted as an endorsement of Annan’s competence.
As secretary-general, Annan served as the UN’s top administrator of the Oil-for-Food program for Saddam Hussein’s UN-sanctioned Iraq, In that capacity, Annan spent years urging the program’s expansion and ignoring its expanding scope and scale of corruption. During that exercise, one of Annan’s diplomatic coups was to go to Baghdad to persuade Saddam in 1998 not to kick out UN weapons inspectors. Annan flew back to New York to announce that while he didn’t trust Saddam, he could do business with him. Later that same year, Saddam kicked out the weapons inspectors anyway, and out they remained for four years, while Annan’s secretariat collected a cut of Saddam’s oil sales to finance “oversight” of the program, and Annan signed off on Baghdad relief plans that included equipment for Iraq’s Ministry of “Justice” and broadcasting equipment for Saddam’s Ministry of “Information.”
There’s plenty one could add, but the bottom line in this case is, Syria is a complex scene, where a murderous, terrorist-sponsoring dictatorship — Bashar Assad’s regime is a business partner of totalitarian North Korea and an intimate client of terror-sponsoring Iran — is at war with an opposition that includes both democrats and Islamist jihadis. Annan is not only in over his head; he rarely displays any good sense about which way is up.
As for Chris Hill, who now urges unqualified support for whatever Annan next conjures up for Syria, let us recall Hill’s starring role during during the second George W. Bush administration, as head of the U.S. delegation to the Six-Party Talks with North Korea.