Saving Syria from Kofi Annan

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.


In that post, Hill seemed to enjoy largely unqualified support from both President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The result was that the U.S, in its efforts to please Pyongyang:

  • Choreographed the transfer back to North Korea of some $25 million in allegedly illicit funds that had been frozen in Macau
  • Took North Korea off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror, and wined and dined their lead nuclear negotiator in New York
  •  Paid millions to Pyongyang for the Potemkin spectacle of North Korea blowing up a cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuelear complex
  • Reopened the aid spigots to the Kim regime
  • Sat for months on the information that while Hill in early 2007 was announcing his triumph of a nuclear disarmament deal with the North Koreans at the Six Party Talks, North Korea was secretly collaborating with Syria to build a clandestine nuclear reactor  on the Euphrates River — a copy of Yongbyon, which is to say, basically a plutonium factory. (The Israelis destroyed the reactor with an air strike in September, 2007; the Bush administration did not confirm North Korea’s involvement, or the nature of the target, until April, 2008).
  • Soft-pedaled the grotesque human rights violations of the North Korean regime

… That may not be a complete list, but perhaps it will suffice to give a sample of Chris Hill’s diplomatic style.

The upshot was that North Korea pocketed the U.S. gifts and concessions, and — with Hill urging over and over yet more talks, yet more patience — North Korea welched on the deal. As the Bush administration drew to an end, the Six-Party talks collapsed. The newly inaugurated President Barack Obama rewarded Hill for his accomplishments by posting him as ambassador to Iraq.


In mid-2009, North Korea’s government, the beneficiary of all that Six-Party “stakeholder” palaver, conducted a ballistic missile test (which they called a satellite launch, though no satellite was apparent), followed by the country’s second nuclear test.

Do we really need more of this brand of “diplomacy”? For an alternative that is robust, actually looks out for U.S. interests, and by extension probes for remedies in Syria that might actually end up saving the Syrians as well, check out John Bolton’s recent piece on “What to Do about Syria?”

Bolton wastes almost no time on Kofi Annan, noting chiefly as concerns Annan and his old fraternity that the UN “has failed, is failing, and will continue to fail to resolve the Syria conflict.” In blessed contravention of the Kofi Annan-Chris Hill model of diplomacy, Bolton notes that “Negotiations require a negotiator with something in his back pocket other than a white flag.” He urges tipping events in the right direction by focusing on “eliminating Tehran’s nuclear program,” and by firing off warning shots to Bashar Assad’s pals in Russia and China, via measures such as resuming full-scale and accelerated efforts to build a missile defense system, and withdrawing from the new START arms-control treaty — a deal that was all too flexible in Russia’s favor.

And if the old boys of the diplomatic establishment are really that desperate to find post-retirement employment for Kofi Annan, here’s an idea. Last I heard, Annan’s old handpicked executive director of Oil-for-Food, Benon Sevan, was still living on Cyprus — where he is immune to extradition to the U.S., despite his federal indictment in 2007, in the Southern District of New York, on Oil-for-Food-related charges of bribery and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. As far as I am aware, Annan has never spoken up to urge that Sevan return to New York, to face those charges. Maybe Annan could devote his diplomatic skills to a campaign aimed at persuading Sevan to return to New York, and, under oath, tell his side of the story.

(Thumbnail image on PJM homepage by Joyfull /


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