The merits of Kofi Annan

Yesterday, via Twitter, I questioned whether Kofi Annan was an inspired choice to serve as the international community's lead envoy on Syria. I pointed out, too caustically, that Annan has as part of his record leadership of UN peacekeeping during the Bosnia and Rwanda catastrophes. 

Over the next several hours, I took a pretty serious drubbing from some very well-informed folks arguing that Annan is a strong choice and has real potential to make a difference. Bruce Jones, who has actually worked with Annan at the UN on Middle East issues, offered this list of his virtues:

He has huge credibility worldwide; a strong track record of calling for demo reforms in ME before anyone else; and

he's incredibly calming, in a situ where that's desperately needed, if forceful intervention isn't forthcoming.

Middle East expert and fellow FP blogger Marc Lynch pointed out that as a former Secretary General, Annan is as high profile an envoy as could be found.

the argument for Annan is pretty simple - former Sec-Gen is highest possible ranking envoy from UN system.

Jeff Laurenti (echoing Mark Leon Goldberg) argued that Annan's post-UN work as a mediator in Kenya produced results and showed considerable deftness.

@abuaardvark @multilateralist Shouldn't forget his patching #Kenya back together. #Annan has unique int'l respect and standing

In the face of this onslaught, I'm ready to beat a tactical retreat and concede that Annan might indeed be a wise choice for this post. My real beef here is not with Annan's particular skill set but with the way in which past policy failures often slide down the memory hole. Annan headed up UN peacekeeping during the horrific years of 1994-1995. During that time, blue-helmeted peacekeepers were bystanders to the Rwandan genocide and the Srebrenica massacre. These were epic disasters.  Annan's performance, particularly in the run-up to the Rwanda genocide, was uninspired to put it mildly.

Few if any of the key international players in those disasters suffered professionally. Quite the contrary.  Annan of course was shortly thereafter elevated to the top UN job. The American UN ambassador Madeleine Albright, who insisted at the Security Council that the UN withdraw its forces from Rwanda entirely and helped rebuff calls from the peacekeeping commander for reinforcements, soon became secretary of state. Her boss, Warren Christopher--who played a lead role in fashioning America's awful Bosnia policy--glided off into gilded retirement and elder-statesman status. The U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa U.S. National Security Council's peacekeeping expert at the time, Susan Rice, is now America's U.N. ambassador (and, to be fair, her role appears to have been fairly marginal.)

I am not ready to argue that any of these individuals should have been deemed unfit for future public responsiblities. These and other players all had distinct roles, responsibilities and duties.  But it is striking that there was almost no meaningful personal accountability for those disasters. The UN belatedly undertook examinations that sprinkled blame around liberally, but blaming everyone means blaming no one.

This points to a broader problem with international organizations that a number of scholars and policymakers have addressed: the accountability gap. Not long ago, a unit of the International Monetary Fund wrote a report on why the organization's many highly trained economists failed to anticipate the 2007-2008 financial crisis. It's a fascinating read, chock full of insights into the psychological and technical blind spots Fund staff and leaders experienced. But, once again, no one was really responsible.

Referencing Bosnia and Rwanda, Marc Lynch argued yesterday that "most learned from those failures and [are] determined not to repeat." Maybe he's right. But unless epic failures like Bosnia and Rwanda constantly dog--and are made to dog--those associated with them, there's an altogether less constructive lesson that could be drawn: catastrophic inaction ain't all that bad for your career.

The Multilateralist

Would an Israeli strike on Iran be legal?

Brazilian foreign minister Antonio Patriota tells Laura Rozen that the UN Secretary General should speak out on whether a strike against Iran would be legal:

"No doubt adding an additional flashpoint of military action in a volatile region will greatly exacerbate tensions," Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota told Yahoo News in an interview in New York Tuesday. The international community should proceed "with the utmost caution."

"There is a role for him in this," Patriota said he had proposed to the UN chief. "One sometimes hears the expression, 'all options are on the table.' But some actions are contrary to international law."

I actually wouldn't be shocked if Ban Ki-moon took him up on the invitation. Ban's a second-term chief, so he need not worry about angering key UN members (namely, the United States). And if he were to come out with a strong statement against the legality of a strike, he'd win praise for having tried to help avert a conflict (without actually having done so, of course).

On the substance of the legal question, Israel has a steep hill to climb. The basic UN Charter structure has been broadly interpreted to provide that a lawful use of force must either be in self defense or authorized by the UN Security Council. There's almost no possibility of the latter, so Israel would have to hang its hat on self defense. And Israel could marshal an impressive body of statements from Iranian leaders suggesting that Iran is functionally in a state of war with the Jewish state. Consistent Iranian support for Hezbollah and other militants attacking Israel bolsters the case. The argument here wouldn't be preemptive self defense (which would be a real stretch); it would be that the two countries are already effectively in a state of war, and that a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities would be another phase in that ongoing conflict.

Israel might be able to make a distinct argument that a strike would be legal. Pointing to the actual practice of states--and with particular emphasis on the post-9/11 period--Israel could argue that a strike does not violate the UN Charter's key provision restricting the use of force, Article 2(4). That article reads as follows:

All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations. 

Over the decades, a number of legal scholars--including, notably, Anthony D'Amato--have argued that this provision is not the blanket prohibition on the use of force that many claim it to be. So long as Israel's strike would not aim to dismember Iran or strip away its political independence, the argument would go, it's not expressly prohibited. Writing in the July 1983 issue of the American Journal of International Law, D'Amato made just that argument regarding Israel's 1981 strike against Iraq's nuclear reactor:

[I]t is open to serious question whether Israel's strike was a use of force against either Iraq's territorial integrity or its political independence. No portion of Iraq's territory was taken away from Iraq by the bombardment...Nor was Iraq's political independence compromised. Iraq's power was undoubtedly lessened, but in what sense was its governmental authority vis-a-vis other sovereign governments diminished?

Israel could point to a host of cases in which states used limited force and were not condemned in any way by the international community. NATO's 1999 air campaign against Serbia would be a key exhibit. What's more, in the case of Iran, Israel could claim to be advancing a goal--the ending of Iran's nuclear weapons program--that does have clear international backing, as evidenced by multiple Security Council resolutions.

Neither of these arguments is likely to persuade many people. While the self defense argument has a surface plausibility, a strike directly against Iranian territory would be a radical escalation of what has been a low-level proxy conflict. Very few people will view an Israeli strike as anything other than the opening of a new conflict. The Article 2(4) route, for its part, radically diminishes the conventional interpretation of that provision. Even diplomats and lawyers sympathetic to the argument--including some in the U.S. State Department, I'd wager--aren't likely to say so publicly. The United States has been cagey about the formal justification for many of its own counterterror strikes and clearly prefers to leave many uses of force in the legal murk.

But the complexity of the arguments that would be on offer may well induce the UN Secretary General to stay silent and let the Security Council speak for the organization.