Speaking at a festive dinner Friday night that was organized by the U.N. Correspondents Association, Secretary-General Kofi Annan joked about rumors that he is about to resign. “I am resigning myself,” he said as members of the audience gasped, “to having a good time.” Mr. Annan’s feeble attempt at humor aside, his malfeasance in office is a cruel joke that has been played time and again on the people that the United Nations is supposed to help.
The oil-for-food scandal — where Saddam Hussein systematically looted what was supposed to be a humanitarian program to pay off his political cronies — is just one of the very prominent stains on the record of Mr. Annan and the United Nations. In the wake of mounting revelations about corruption in that program, several Republican senators who have taken leadership roles in demanding accountability — including Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and John Ensign of Nevada — have called for Mr. Annan’s ouster. Indeed, the the worsening oil-for-food scandal — with new revelations about the degree of thievery that took place — may yet drive Mr. Annan out of office before his term is scheduled to expire in 2006. But for now, the Bush administration, while decidedly unhappy with the United Nations, is disinclined to push for his early resignation, due to the fact that problems that infest the world body go well beyond Mr. Annan’s leadership failures. Absent major changes in the structure of the United Nations, it will continue to fail — whether Mr. Annan stays or goes.
The only thing that seems clear right now is that things cannot continue the way they have been. U.S. taxpayers provide 22 percent of the United Nations operating budget. And what do they get in return? More often than not, failure. By last year, for example, it had become obvious that diplomatic inducements were not going to be able to persuade Saddam to comply with myriad Security Council disarmament resolutions he had flouted. But the council was unable to agree to the use of force against his regime, due at least in part to the fact that prominent political figures in countries like France and Russia were receiving bribes through the oil-for-food program. So the United States was forced to go outside the United Nations in order to put together a coalition against Saddam. And there are many other examples we could cite of U.N. malfeasance.
Given his record as a creature of this system, Mr. Annan is most unlikely to reform it. And dealing with the political fallout from the oil-for-food scandal, which occured on his watch, is likely to delay larger, systemic reform of the United Nations. But it is also likely that the longer Mr. Annan stays in office, the longer this scandal will be on a high big-media glare. The added press attention is likely to result in more revelations of scandal. The revelations will create more pressure for a large-scale revamping of the United Nations in the near future — possibly beginning the transformation of the United Nations into a worthwhile institution.
By contrast, for those who think the United Nations is more or less doing fine the way it is, Mr. Annan’s early departure could reduce pressure for changing the status quo. Should these people come to the realization that his continued presence as secretary-general is actually counterproductive when it comes to keeping things the way they are, it will be the end of the line for Kofi Annan.