You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation


Cambridge Diarist

LAST WEEK, THE BIG NEWS from the 9/11 Commission was the disastrous counterterrorism performance of both the CIA and FBI over many years. (With Bob Woodward’s description of CIA Director George Tenet’s declaration to a skeptical George W. Bush in late 2002 that the intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction [WMD] was a “slam dunk,” Tenet now has the dubious distinction of having utterly failed on the two most important intelligence-related issues of our time. And his certainty about WMD makes Bush’s rather more understandable.) The intelligence agencies, it seems, were obsessed not with Al Qaeda, but with protecting their tuff. Their political superiors, unfortunately, had their own obsessions: Bill Clinton with Monica, FBI Director Louis Freeh with AL Gore’s Buddhist temple fund-raiser, and Condoleezza Rice with Star Wars. (Gore, to his credit, seems to have been obsessed with airport and airline security and produced a prescient report on the subject, the recommendations of which were sabotaged by both the airline industry and civil libertarians.) But fixation on other issues is not the same as ignorance: Important facts about Osama bin Laden’s network were known. Richard Clarke and others were frantically trying to get policymakers to focus on them. Still, in the eight years of Clinton’s administration and the eight months of Bush’s before the leveling of the World Trade Center, few felt an urgent need to respond to what everyone knew: that a vast Islamist conspiracy wanted to inflict harm. Not only on the United States, but—as a succession of previously classified intelligence memos now make clear—in the United States as well.

ANNIVERSARIES HAUNT OUR PUBLIC personages. The Sunni rising in Falluja and Moqtada Al Sadr’s Islamist Shia rising in the south came exactly a year after the fall of Baghdad, so there was little for Bush to celebrate. This time, there were no MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banners for Karl Rove to display. Instead, Bush has much to puzzle over—if puzzling is something he does, which, as his prime-time press conference made abundantly clear, doesn’t seem to be the case.

BY CONTRAST, KOFI ANNAN TELLS US regularly that he puzzles; indeed, he even remonstrates with himself. This is one of his dinner-party charms. During these last weeks, he would have us believe, his soul has been in constant doubt and self-reproach. Why these weeks especially? Because we have just observed the tenth anniversary of the Hutu extermination of the Tutsi, as many as 800,000 of them, in Rwanda, which Annan, as head of the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, on several occasions ordered his personnel not to impede—except if it were “essential for the evacuation of foreign nationals.”

IT WASN’T AS IF THE MILITARY FORCE needed to block the vast machete genocide was unavailable. (Samantha Power tells us convincingly in “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide that, with appropriate and easy maneuvers, the United Nations could have both staged rescue operations and confronted the killers.) What was unavailable was international will, for whose flaccidity Annan was both incarnation and tribune. He played a similar role in the Serbian carnage of the Bosnians. Showy apologies from such a man are a bit indecent, rather like Robert McNamara’s sermons about just wars. If I had stood by in the face of the mass murder of 800,000 Tutsi, as Annan did, I’d be doing penance rather than lecturing others. One useful form of penance would be for Annan to do something serious about another genocide going on right now on his home continent—in Sudan, where Arab militias are slaughtering or deporting hundreds of thousands of Africans from their own country. Typically, Annan has uttered some high-minded words. But he and his organization have done almost nothing.

GIVEN THE U.N.’S SHABBY RECORD IN so many countries, over so many years, it is amazing that John Kerry still thinks the organization can be the deus ex machina in Iraq. To be sure, Bush is himself handing over some power to Annan’s diplomats, in a reluctant concession to the political realities in Baghdad, London, and Washington. But his Democratic challenger—a longtime enthusiast for all manner of international institutions—is downright enthusiastic about putting the United Nations in charge of Iraq’s return to sovereignty. This, despite the ongoing revelations about the U.N.’s corrupt oil-for-food program, which has earned it the enmity of many of the Iraqi people. Annan defends the United Nations as merely the sum of its nation-state parts. Perhaps, but, in the case of oil-for-food, as in so many others, it is the lowest common denominator of the five permanent members that make up its Security Council. No one should imagine, based on past experience, that the United Nations will be any more honest, effective, or democracy minded in Iraq than France, Russia, and China want it to be. Luckily, however, we’ll probably never find out, since the United Nations—shaken by the bombing of its Baghdad headquarters last summer—won’t take up the mandate Kerry wants to hand it.

KERRY HAS ALSO SUGGESTED THAT OUR Arab allies be invited to assist with the Iraqi handover. (Which of these exemplary regimes he wants to handle Iraq’s transition he doesn’t specify.) His suggestion echoes that of Miguel Moratinos, the new foreign minister of Spain, that, according to The Wall Street Journal, the present coalition be supplanted by neighboring Muslim nations. Let’s be clear: Inviting Cairo and Riyadh, not to mention Damascus and Tehran, into Iraq to remake it in their authoritarian image means abandoning the prospect of a democratic Iraq that brought American troops into that country. In fact, it could even mean abandoning the prospect of a unified Iraq—since Iran, Saudi Arabia, and even Turkey would likely strengthen their religious and ethnic Iraqi allies-pulling apart Iraq’s always fragile sense of nationhood and disenfranchising ethnic minorities like the Kurds. I myself have never put much faith in the possibilities of Arab democracy, but we at least have an obligation to try to recognize the effort as a noble one. Things may look grim now, but surprise in politics is no stranger to me; and, amid the present chaos and killing in Iraq, what occurs in Baghdad may yet astonish us all. But only if Iraq’s immediate future remains in America’s, not Kofi Annan’s, hands.

This article appeared in the May 3, 2004, issue of the magazine.