Secret Meeting, Clear Mission: 'Rescue' U.N.
January 3, 2005, New York Times
By WARREN HOGE
UNITED NATIONS, Jan. 2 - The meeting of veteran foreign
policy experts in a Manhattan apartment one recent Sunday
was held in strict secrecy. The guest of honor arrived
without his usual retinue of aides.
The mission, in the words of one participant, was clear:
"to save Kofi and rescue the U.N."
At the gathering, Secretary General Kofi Annan listened
quietly to three and a half hours of bluntly worded counsel
from a group united in its personal regard for him and
support for the United Nations. The group's concern was
that lapses in his leadership during the past two years had
eclipsed the accomplishments of his first four-year term in
office and were threatening to undermine the two years
remaining in his final term.
They began by arguing that Mr. Annan had to refresh his top
management team, and on Monday he will announce that Mark
Malloch Brown, 51, the widely respected administrator of
the United Nations Development Program, will become Mr.
Annan's chief of staff, replacing Iqbal Riza, who announced
his retirement on Dec. 22.
Their larger argument, according to participants, addressed
two broad needs. First, they said, Mr. Annan had to repair
relations with Washington, where the Bush administration
and many in Congress thought he and the United Nations had
worked against President Bush's re-election. Second, he had
to restore his relationship with his own bureaucracy, where
many workers said privately that his office protected
high-level officials accused of misconduct.
In the week after the session, Mr. Annan sought and
obtained a meeting with Condoleezza Rice, the nominee for
secretary of state. United Nations officials said afterward
that it was an encouraging meeting.
The apartment gathering on Dec. 5 came at the end of a year
that Mr. Annan has described as the organization's "annus
horribilis." The United Nations faced charges of corruption
in the oil-for-food program in Iraq, evidence that
blue-helmeted peacekeepers in Congo had run prostitution
rings and raped women and teenage girls, and formal motions
of no confidence in the organization's senior management
from staff unions.
Just days before the gathering, Senator Norm Coleman, a
Minnesota Republican who is chairman of a subcommittee
investigating the oil-for-food program, had brought
criticism of the United Nations to a boil by calling for
Mr. Annan's resignation.
The meeting also occurred at a moment when the United
Nations faces major institutional challenges: the Jan. 30
balloting in Iraq that United Nations electoral experts
helped set up; the preliminary report late this month of
the oil-for-food inquiry led by Paul A. Volcker, the former
Federal Reserve chairman.
Now, the Asian tsunami is testing the organization's
capacity for coordinating aid on a global scale.
The meeting was held in the apartment of Richard C.
Holbrooke, a United States ambassador to the United Nations
under President Clinton.
Others in attendance were John G. Ruggie, assistant
secretary general for strategic planning from 1997 to 2001
and now a professor of international relations at the John
F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard; Leslie H. Gelb,
a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations;
Timothy E. Wirth, the president of the United Nations
Foundation, based in Washington; Kathy Bushkin, the
foundation's executive vice president; Nader Mousavizadeh,
a former special assistant to Mr. Annan who left in 2003 to
work at Goldman Sachs; and Robert C. Orr, the assistant
secretary general for strategic planning. Sir Jeremy
Greenstock, Britain's ambassador to the United Nations from
1998 to 2003, was invited but could not attend.
"The intention was to keep it confidential," Mr. Holbrooke
said. "No one wanted to give the impression of a group of
outsiders, all of them Americans, dictating what to do to a
He described the group as people "who care deeply about the
U.N. and believe that the U.N. cannot succeed if it is in
open dispute and constant friction with its founding
nation, its host nation and its largest contributor
"The U.N., without the U.S. behind it, is a failed
institution," he said.
None of the participants would discuss the remarks that
were made in any detail. "Secret advice, such as it is, is
effective to the extent that it is kept that way," Mr.
But one participant, who requested anonymity, said Mr.
Annan remained quiet throughout the session and made no
promises - nor was he asked to - at its end.
"He sat in silence and made no effort to defend himself,"
the participant said. "He was taking it all in. It wasn't a
conversation, it was much more of a, 'Here is the
situation, here are the choices on what you can do.' "
Mr. Holbrooke said that the talk, while unalloyed, was not
confrontational. "There was nothing adversarial about it,"
he said. "Kofi knew he was in a meeting with people who
cared deeply about him and about the institution."
In a telephone interview on Sunday, Mr. Annan said he felt
the session had been "supportive and helpful," but said it
was just one of many such meetings he had been holding.
"I've been talking to lots of people here and abroad and
within my own organization planning ahead for the next two
years," he said. "It was part of that process. We did
discuss how to improve relations with Washington."
One of the members of the group had prepared for the
session by finding out if the Bush administration was
siding with those in Congress who were calling for Mr.
Annan's resignation or whether it would support his resolve
to stay in office until the end of his term in December
The official, a onetime senior government figure in
Washington with close ties to the Bush administration, said
he concluded that "they were not going to draw the sword
"Everyone I talked to, including the White House, said that
if Kofi was going to go, it was going to be by the hand of
the Volcker report, not by the hand of the Bush
administration," the official said.
As for the staff's unhappiness with Mr. Annan's inner
circle, Mr. Ruggie said: "I think there is a genuine
concern in the building that senior management is not held
accountable for their decisions, for bad judgments, for
poor performance, and that must change. The Secretary
General missed an opportunity at the end of the first term
to re-energize his top team as an American president would
do, for example."
Ms. Bushkin said of Mr. Annan: "My perception of what's
happening is that he is preparing himself for the last two
years, he's looking at his own leadership style and what
it's going to take to get the job done. The last two years
may require different skills in the people around him."
One top adviser who may be leaving is Kieran Prendergast,
the under secretary for political affairs since 1997, who
diplomats say is under consideration for the post of
special envoy to the Middle East, which was vacated by
Mr. Annan also has the opportunity to place new people in
two other jobs that have become open coincidentally with
the departures of Catherine Bertini, the under secretary
general for management, and Jean-Pierre Halbwachs, the
The speakers also faulted the United Nations for the state
of its public communications. "Throughout the building
there is fairly low morale, which stems from the lackluster
way in which the institution and the secretary general's
office have responded to the oil-for-food charges," Mr.
He continued, "The attackers of the U.N. for too long have
had a free ride in exaggerating the magnitude of the
problem, sometimes deliberately distorting the facts,
escalating their accusations and demands for his
resignation, and frankly the response on the part of the
U.N. has been inept."