Annan is teetering on his pedestalUNITED NATIONS, New York For years, Kofi Annan was seen at the United Nations as a Mandela-like figure, a statesman who brought a serene sense of personal confidence and institutional steadiness to the task of settling conflict and a person frequently likened to the organization's greatest secretaries general.
"He was almost a saint-like character, clearly the most respected UN leader since Dag Hammarskjold," said Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, referring to the Swedish Secretary General of the 1950s long considered the post's most distinguished occupant.
Today Annan is the embattled head of an organization at odds with its most powerful constituent, the United States, and the object of such personal scorn that critics of the United Nations - chief among them Senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, whose Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations is scrutinizing the scandal-ridden United Nations oil-for-food program - are calling on him to resign.
Diplomats at the United Nations, caught by surprise at the broad assault on the organization and Annan, are alarmed at evidence that a campaign they felt was confined to conservative Republicans angry over UN opposition to the Bush administration invasion of Iraq is spreading so rapidly.
"The danger now is that a group of people who want to destroy or paralyze the UN are beginning to pick up support from some of those whose goal is to reform it," said Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton, and an Annan booster.
"He had the moral authority of the Nobel Prize, the respect and indeed the affection of everyone who knew him, and he still has the affection, but the Nobel prize has become an ironic fading memory, and he is in danger of losing the support of people who care about the UN."
The calls for him to step aside come at a time when a report he commissioned from an international panel of politicians and statesmen has just been published laying out a path for sweeping reforms at the United Nations - the mission he adopted and pursued on coming into office in 1997 and one he had hoped would be his legacy on his scheduled departure at the end of 2006.
A Ghanaian educated in the United States, Annan came to office in 1997 as an American-backed champion of reform, succeeding Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, whom the United States had effectively barred from a second term because of his tone-deafness to Washington's demands for administrative and financial change.
Once in office, Annan managed to gain the confidence of figures in Washington like Jesse Helms, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, who had been openly hostile to the United Nations under his predecessor. On being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2001, he told associates that the most gratifying part of the citation for him was the language lauding him for revitalizing the United Nations.
Fred Eckhard, a spokesman for Annan, turned aside questions about a possible resignation, saying he had heard no such calls from any of the 191 member states. "He is intent on continuing his substantive work for the remaining two years and one month of his term."
There is no provision in the UN Charter for removal of a secretary general, who is chosen by the General Assembly at the recommendation of the Security Council countries. Five Council members, Russia, Chile, Britain, Germany and Spain, and a number of other countries made public declarations backing him Thursday, and the 54 African member states sent a letter of support.
United Nations staff members have rallied behind Annan with a circulating e-mail saying that many of the charges against him were "totally unfounded and verge on the hysterical." The statement concludes, "More than ever, we support the secretary general in his balanced, fair and substantive approach."
Ahmad Fawzi, a senior United Nations official, said Thursday that the petition had attracted 3,170 signatures from Secretariat employees in New York and Geneva.
Fawzi said that the turnout reflected not just anger at the accusations, which he said most United Nations workers believe to be a politically motivated attempt to discredit the organization, but also disappointment at the failure of senior management to mount an effective response.
"The dismay is palpable," he said. "This is upsetting the staff, morale is at an all-time low. We feel we don't deserve this abuse, and a lot of people are asking, "'When do we start swinging back?"'
"No one wants him to resign," he said. "But there is discontent over how the organization and the secretary general have not responded more vigorously to all these allegations."
Addressing the point, Holbrooke said, "The United Nations system had no experience dealing with scandal and did not understand that the appearance of a coverup is invariably more serious than the initial event."
John Ruggie, an assistant secretary general for strategic affairs from 1997 to 2001 and now a professor of international affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, said, "I don't know of another institution that is as inept at getting its story out than the UN The training and multicultural background of the people at the UN does not prepare anybody for being in the media bubble of New York and Washington."
Wirth said he did not believe Annan was thinking of retiring and also did not think the United States Congress had the power to drive him from office. "Kofi's constituency is 190 other countries, where he is largely applauded," he said.
Making a similar point, David Shorr, program officer of the Stanley Foundation, which focuses on the United Nations, said, "What is going on here is that the Washington culture is bearing down hard on this building. We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the UN is the political crossroads for the wider world, not just part of the American political scene."
Ruggie said that if Annan were somehow forced out, "there would be a deep sense of betrayal and disappointment on the part of many governments and inside the UN itself. I think among a large number of people, the feeling would be that Kofi Annan is being scapegoated for shortcomings to which he himself may have contributed but for which he is not the source."
Wirth, a former Democratic Senator from Colorado, said he had been in his home state last weekend and was struck by how much attention the oil for food program was attracting in the local press and how damaged Annan's reputation was by revelations last week that his son Kojo had received payments from his former employer, Cotecna Inspection Services, a Swiss company involved in the oil for food program, long after the United Nations claimed he had severed all ties.
"It's not the oil for food program alone that generated all of this," he said. "It's the involvement of the son, Kojo."