“Time and again, when member states and the governments are faced with an insoluble problem, and they’re under pressure to do something, that something usually ends up being referred to the UN,” he said.
He allows a wry chuckle before adding: “The Security Council is dealing it with it, so they can relax. And you get the mandates, yes. You just don’t get the commensurate resources to deal with it, so you are bound to run into difficulties and fail. And then be blamed. One of my predecessors used to say the letters SG [secretary-general] stood for scapegoat.”
The new appetite for humanitarian intervention was in its honeymoon period in 1993, when UN forces were committed in Somalia to what then-US secretary of state Madeleine Albright declared “an unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country.”
However, after rebels downed two US helicopters, the US pulled out, and the UN mission collapsed. The legacy of this failure, Annan writes, explains why the UN stood by and watched a massacre unfold in Rwanda a year later. When the world belatedly woke up to the genocide, UN peacekeepers were blamed for member states’ reluctance to risk their own troops’ lives.
When it came to Kosovo in 1999, Russian support for Serbia ruled out any chance of a Security Council resolution mandating troops. For the first time in the history of the UN, its secretary-general endorsed military action conducted by NATO without the authorization of the Security Council. It was, by Annan’s account, the ultimate moral dilemma; do loyalties lie with the UN and the rule of law, or with innocent civilians being slaughtered? He stands by his support for the NATO airstrikes, but warned at the time that unless the Security Council was restored as the sole source of legitimacy, the world would be “on a dangerous path to anarchy.” That prediction proved horribly prescient four years later, when the Security Council failed to pass a second resolution authorizing an invasion of Iraq and the war went ahead anyway. The war came close to costing him his job — but to many of his admirers it became his finest moment.
Annan was always doubtful about the extent of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s hidden weapons of mass destruction.
“The UN inspectors had been in there for quite a long time and destroyed quite a few arms; in fact, people argued that they destroyed more weapons than the first Gulf War. So the feeling was that he may have had something, but how massive, and the nature of the weapons, was unsure,” he said.
So why wouldn’t Saddam co-operate with the inspections?
“He had been bluffing to his neighbors for so many years, telling them: ‘I’m powerful, I’ve got these weapons, don’t mess with me.’ It was a psychological bluff. So he couldn’t bear to admit that actually he’d lied,” he said.
Annan’s great regret was to appoint a gung-ho weapons inspector, insensitive to the delicacy of Iraqi military pride. Richard Butler, he writes, was “a colossal mistake and one of the worst appointments I ever made.” Why? “In a place like Baghdad, where the people are very nationalistic, you need to find a way to work with them. You cannot go there and throw your weight around.”
He still winces at the memory of all the grandstanding that led inexorably to war. Bizarrely, in the midst of all former US president George W. Bush’s fighting talk, the US president told Annan: “It brings tears to my eyes to think of what the Iraqi people are going through under Saddam.”