Annan is generous enough to say: “I think it was genuine; I don’t think it would be crocodile tears,” but pretty blunt about Bush’s other motives. “There was quite a bit of that in the air, that he was trying to finish his dad’s job. And the advisers around him also wanted that. They were also thinking, we kill two birds with one stone — we get rid of a bad dictator, and get rid of the weapons.”
What about the third bird — Iraq’s oil reserves?
“Well that’s what people say,” Annan agrees with a chuckle.
Those who say it have often been dismissed as lefty conspiracy theorists — but when I ask if Annan would say it himself, he replies without hesitation: “Yes. It was a country with resources in a region of extreme importance to the world. I’m not sure if Iraq had been as poor as Somalia that there would have been that interest in going to save the country.”
He is less sure about former British prime minister Tony Blair’s motivation.
“Tony, at his best, in his heyday, would have been one of the most brilliant politicians of his time. But how he got himself entangled with this ... I think there was a genuine friendship with Bush, but perhaps there was greater need on Tony’s side than on Bush’s. I wasn’t sure if Tony genuinely wanted to go to war, or was just trying to protect the special relationship and the special relationship trumped everything. It’s difficult to say, because at the beginning he appeared to be on the right side, and he was also in favor of a second resolution. I hoped that would have been the point where you tell George: ‘George, you are on your own. I’m not following you on this without the [Security] Council resolution.’ And I wonder what George would have said,” Annan said.
Does he think it might have stopped him?
“I think it could have made a big difference,” he answered.
In 2007, Blair was appointed special envoy to the Quartet, a diplomatic mission created in 2002 by Annan himself to represent the US, EU, UK and Russia in peace talks on Palestine. I found Blair’s appointment baffling and tell Annan I struggle to see how he could ... “Do it?” Annan completes the sentence. “Yeah, yeah.”
So he shares the bewilderment?
“I share some of that. I was surprised that he accepted the role. And nothing much is happening on that dossier. For the past four to five years there has been no real Middle East mediation,” he said.
Annan famously declared the Iraq war illegal and has never regretted it.
“Because that was my genuine belief,” he said.
However, the price he paid took even him by surprise: “The UN got attacked, and I got attacked personally.”
The pressure from Washington was ferocious, but he never seriously contemplated resignation.
“It may have fleetingly crossed my mind. Sometimes you feel: ‘Who needs this? Why should one put up with this?’ But I felt it was a witch-hunt. So to walk away and give them the feeling that they have won? No,” Annan said.
For all its ugliness, the onslaught against Annan was in essence no more than a manifestation of the fundamental tension underscoring his whole diplomatic career — the conflict between national self-interest, or realpolitik, and the loftier ideal of international law embodied by the organization Annan served for 50 years.