A Star Turn For The Peace Broker
Kofi Annan speaks softly, but he showed in Iraq that he plays tough
By Romesh Ratnesar
(TIME, March 9) -- Seated in a Baghdad briefing room last Monday, the man who struck the deal and silenced the guns was not gloating. Instead, Kofi Annan played the part of a retiring, gracious guest. He thanked "His Excellency President Saddam Hussein" and "His Excellency Tariq Aziz" for their hospitality. He applauded Saddam for being "very well informed and in full control of the facts." He listened patiently as Aziz blustered. But when Aziz declared that "it was diplomacy that reached this agreement, not the saber rattling," Annan could not let it go unchallenged. "You can do a lot with diplomacy," he said softly, "but of course you can do a lot more with diplomacy backed up by firmness and force."
It was a revealing moment. When he became the first black African Secretary-General of the United Nations, in 1997, Kofi Annan, 59, was known for his distinguished career service to the U.N. and his amiable, phlegmatic demeanor, which had earned him adoration within the U.N.'s vast bureaucracy. But some wondered whether his gentleness would make Annan easy to push around--if not by foreign tyrants, than perhaps by the Americans who had engineered his victory. Last week's events proved that Annan can play tough with both. "He is a very calm, composed person," says longtime friend Kwesi Botchwey, a former Ghanaian Finance Minister. "But at the same time, he is very tenacious. He has a lot of spine." Annan's firmness in the Baghdad talks even impressed Saddam. "I know," the dictator told him, "you are a courageous man."
Annan's triumph in Iraq has made him an instantly recognizable--and unquestionably powerful--statesman. "Kofi is now a very famous man," says American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, a close friend. By signing the agreement himself in Baghdad, Annan seized the initiative from the U.N. Security Council and made it clear that he will have a role in deciding what happens next. And the U.N., or at least the office of the Secretary-General, has regained some respect. Says Holbrooke: "He has restored luster to a job that was diminished greatly by his predecessors."
It has been an extraordinary rise, made more impressive by Annan's incapacity for self-promotion. "He has an anticharismatic charisma," says Holbrooke. "He has tremendous dignity and self-control." Adds Assistant Secretary-General John Ruggie: "He does not allow his ego to get in the way of what he is trying to accomplish." Annan makes light of his almost oppressive reputation for reserve. In an interview with TIME last week, he described Saddam as "soft-spoken" and then paused. "I should be careful--I shouldn't say soft-spoken because I am supposed to be soft-spoken and weak," he said, flashing his impish grin.
Annan was born in Kumasi, Ghana, the son of a hereditary chief of the Fante people, a tribe famous for its gentility. He once led schoolmates at boarding school on a hunger strike to demand better food, but he was also an easygoing prankster. "He could be messing around with you and do it with so much charm that you wouldn't feel the pain," Botchwey says. He was a track star at the University of Science and Technology at Kumasi before transferring to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and receiving a degree in economics. He returned to the U.S. in 1971 and earned an M.S. in management at M.I.T.
His career at the U.N. began humbly in 1962 as an administrative and budget officer at the World Health Organization in Geneva. By 1993 he had worked his way through several finance and management positions to a coveted slot, Under Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations. In that office he oversaw 80,000 troops in 17 military operations. But his real entrance onto the world diplomatic stage came in August 1995, when he agreed to the launching of massive NATO air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs, a policy Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali adamantly opposed. The decision won Annan the admiration of the Clinton Administration, which began hatching plans to get Annan into the top spot.
Last week he praised the U.S. show of strength in the gulf. "The best way to use force is to show force in order not to use it," he told TIME. But while Annan respects American power, he is not captive to it. In meetings with President Clinton or Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, he makes his bottom line clear by asserting, "This is very important to me." He told TIME that "if the U.S. had gone ahead, it would have divided not only the U.N. but the international community...a good leader must also be a good follower." Of course, that kind of talk drives congressional Republicans batty. Annan enjoys more support on the Hill than Boutros-Ghali did, but he hasn't yet succeeded in getting Congress to pay back the more than $1 billion it owes the U.N.
That has impeded his efforts to get the U.N.'s finances in order. Still, he has slashed 1,000 jobs and cut down on excessive paperwork. But his biggest reform has been the power surge in his staff's morale. "We haven't felt this good in years," says one staff member. His unassuming, workaday style contrasts with that of the more remote, supercilious Boutros-Ghali. "The difference is night and day," says one senior official. Annan eschews the Secretary-General's customary private elevator and often makes the rounds in the offices, talking with U.N. employees, asking about their families. A few years ago, a secretary who had been transferred to New York was so nervous she couldn't summon the courage to introduce herself to Annan. For several days she commiserated with a colleague at the water cooler. When she finally told her boss she was ready to meet Annan, the supervisor told her, "You have already been talking with him for a week."
Annan brings the same coolness to managing the U.N. bureaucracy that he does to handling diplomatic crises. Once, when Ruggie got upset at Annan for not cracking down on recalcitrant staff members, Annan asked Ruggie why he was panicking. "The only reason I am panicked is because you are not panicked," Ruggie said. Grinning, Annan responded, "Why do I need to panic when I have people like you to panic for me?" That affability often masks a tested steeliness. Officials who embarrassed Annan through their incompetence have found themselves in some of the world's least comfortable locations. An American official who witnessed Annan's negotiating technique adds that "he's very mysterious. He can conceal what he is really thinking in a beautiful way."
Annan's privacy, though, is receding fast. He sometimes goes for early morning walks outside the Secretary-General's Manhattan residence, but only accompanied by two U.N. bodyguards and occasionally a third who scouts the road for gawkers. To relax, he listens to jazz, takes walks in the country and indulges in a daily cigar. But his consuming passion is his wife, Nane, a lawyer and accomplished painter and the niece of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who rescued thousands of Jews from the Nazis during World War II. "They've forged a real partnership," says their friend, author Kati Marton. "I never had the sense she was particularly ambitious for him. But she's immensely proud of what's happened to him."
He's a doting husband. "He is a deeply patient man," Nane says. "I have never heard him raise his voice." Fixtures on the New York social circuit, the two sometimes drop into three parties in one evening. Last week they were scheduled to attend a dinner on Tuesday at the home of investment banker Steve Rattner; on Sunday Kofi phoned Nane from Baghdad, telling her to assure the hosts he would make it back in time. Holbrooke recalls attending a bash with the Annans at the Waldorf-Astoria last year. "There was a dance band, and most people wandered out at the end," he says. "But he and Nane were out there on the floor all alone, dancing." From now on, that might be a rare sight. World-renowned statesmen don't usually get so much space to themselves.
--With reporting by William Dowell/U.N. and Douglas Waller/Washington