Is Annan's Legacy at Stake in Middle East?

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has taken an active role in urging European countries to build a peace force for Lebanon. Author James Traub discusses Annan's U.N. tenure with Debbie Elliott.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan heads to Beirut Monday. He'll discuss the deployment of more U.N. peacekeepers to southern Lebanon, part of the U.N. brokered ceasefire between Israel and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

Yesterday, Annan was in Brussels, where European nations pledged nearly 7,000 soldiers for the force.

Author James Traub is writing a book about the U.N. and the Secretary General. I asked him about Annan's personal diplomacy in bringing along the Europeans.

Mr. JAMES TRAUB (Author): I would say it's because of the pressure above all that was put on France. That was really the big change, because Italy had agreed from the outset and the other countries gave small numbers of troops. So the big difference was France.

Now, I think Kofi Annan's presence at the meeting yesterday in Brussels, where those decisions were made, and his own public speaking was part of that pressure. But in this case I think France was courting a kind of national humiliation if they had bowed out of that role.

ELLIOTT: In general, under Kofi Annan's watch, the role of peacekeeping internationally has expanded.

Mr. TRAUB: Oh, enormously. I think that, you know, many of us still have the idea, when we think peacekeeping we think about Bosnia, we think Rwanda, we think Somalia, these unspeakable catastrophes of the mid 1990s. Well, the fact is they were scarring events for the U.N. and the U.N. actually did learn something from them. And so today, there are 80,000 U.N. peacekeepers in the field.

If this mission in Lebanon does go forward, and if the mission that's been talked about in Sudan goes forward, that number will climb over 100,000, which will make the U.N., in effect, the largest deployed army after the United States in the world. So peacekeeping suffers from a terrible reputation for justified failures in the past, but it's much more effective today.

ELLIOTT: Kofi Annan leaves office at the end of the year. Do you see this last round of diplomacy, this extended trip right now in the Middle East - an effort on his part to leave a positive legacy?

Mr. TRAUB: Well, Debbie, I don't think that Kofi Annan himself may think in those terms consciously, but the answer in terms of the way his tenure will be viewed is, yes. If you look at the whole trajectory of his 10 years in office, the golden era that he enjoyed began when he did something similar. He went to Baghdad in late January of 1998 in order to persuade Saddam Hussein to let the weapons inspectors back in, and thus avoid a bombing campaign by the United States and the U.K. It made him a kind of moral agent whom the U.N. had really not had since Hammarskjöld back in the 1950s.

And then suddenly, starting in the fall of 2002, when the debate over Iraq began, everything went bad for him and for the U.N. And he's had three or four years of almost nonstop agony. And the reputation he once had has been all but forgotten. I think this is - historically, at least, will be seen as his last attempt to use the kind of authority that lies in the position and the authority that lies in his own reputation to actually defuse a grave crisis.

My own feeling is that we put such a kind of melodrama and romance on this position that we too easily exaggerate how much power really lies in that moral authority of the Secretary General.

ELLIOTT: How much power does lie there?

Mr. TRAUB: Well, I think the answer is that in certain kinds of situations, where everybody is stymied and they need someone to step in, the secretary general can be the one and only person who's able to do that. In a case like this, I don't think all the combatants are desperate to have some interlocutor or intermediary step in and solve a problem they themselves can't solve, because I think they feel like they want to keep fighting it out.

I think that's true in different ways of both Israel and Hezbollah. The underlying problem, which has resisted solution now for decades - the underlying problems of the Middle East - these have to do with fundamental calculations made by the various players and he can't really influence those.

ELLIOTT: James Traub is a contributor to the New York Times Magazine and the author of the forthcoming book The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the U.N. in the Era of American World Power.

Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. TRAUB: Thanks, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Just ahead, surviving a colicky baby on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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