Temporary truce

Bush's crusade against Kofi Annan and the U.N. for presuming to put limits on U.S. power is on hold -- for now.

Published December 17, 2004 2:40PM (EST)

The Bush administration has distanced itself for the time being from congressional demands for the resignation of the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But acute U.S.-U.N. tensions persist over oil-for-food corruption investigations, the U.N.'s handling of Iran's nuclear programs and Iraq's U.S.-sponsored elections next month.

U.S. resentment over what officials regard as lack of U.N. support for the Iraqi elections is barely contained. The issue topped the agenda in talks Thursday between Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and his designated successor, Condoleezza Rice. The U.S. craves the legitimacy and expertise that only the U.N. can give the process. Because of security concerns, only 19 U.N. electoral staff are in Iraq, compared with 266 who oversaw Afghanistan's elections in October.

Annan ordered non-Iraqi U.N. personnel to leave last year after a bomb killed his senior envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and destroyed the U.N.'s Baghdad headquarters. The U.S. and other Security Council members have since failed to provide a promised U.N. protection force. The U.N. is planning a limited expansion of advisory and technical operations beyond Baghdad before the Jan. 30 elections. But it believes staff remain at great risk, and insists the conduct and monitoring of the elections are the responsibility of Iraq's electoral commission.

American critics suspect Annan has political motives. Illogically, they blame him for the Security Council's refusal to endorse the war. His recent condemnation of the invasion as illegal infuriated neoconservatives. Allegations arising from Saddam Hussein's subversion of the defunct U.N. oil-for-food program have thus become a pretext for demanding Annan's head.

Given an opportunity on Dec. 2 to support Annan, George W. Bush declined. Instead, the president resurrected an old threat -- that U.S. funding, 20 percent of the U.N. budget, depended "on a good, honest appraisal of that which went on." But a week later, after 130 countries voiced support for Annan and the U.N. General Assembly gave him a standing ovation, the administration backed off.

Eating humble pie on his boss's behalf, Ambassador to the U.N. John Danforth told the world body: "It is important for us, the U.S., to clarify our position. We are not suggesting or pushing for the resignation ... of the secretary-general. No one has cast doubt on [his] personal integrity. No one. And certainly we don't."

Perhaps Danforth protested too much. In any case, this abrupt shift may be more about timing than international opinion. And it followed an embarrassing reminder of past U.S. hypocrisy over Saddam's regime. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin noted that the White House had contributed "very significantly" to the oil-for-food problems by turning a blind eye to much more lucrative, long-running, illegal oil and trade deals between Saddam and U.S. allies such as Jordan and Turkey. The New York Times thundered that these backdoor schemes put oil-for-food scams in the shade. Demands for Annan's head "seem wildly premature", it said.

This may be more stay of execution than reprieve. Annan symbolizes all that the neocons most resent: an international bureaucracy presuming to set limits on U.S. power.

Meanwhile, Washington is pressing for Mohamed ElBaradei, the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency chief, to step down. ElBaradei has not been forgiven for being right about Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Now he is accused of being soft on Iran. Last week's revelations that the U.S. had tapped his telephone conversations with Iranian diplomats recalled allegations about U.S. bugging of Annan's office.

If Annan is safe for now, the main reason may be Bush's purported desire to strengthen his second-term multilateralist credentials. He is heading for Europe in February, where support for the U.N. is strong. He aims to mend fences, particularly in Germany, and rally NATO support in Iraq. But the U.S.-U.N. attrition is only on hold.

By Simon Tisdall

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