UNITED NATIONS -- In eight years as U.N. secretary general, Kofi Annan has come as close to superstardom as a diplomat can get -- lauded on the cover of Time, sharing the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize with the organization he leads and becoming known as the "secular pope" for his advocacy for peace and the poor.
But now an internal inquiry and no fewer than six congressional panels are examining evidence of influence-peddling in the Iraq oil-for-food program. A series of financial and sexual misconduct scandals have implicated some of Annan's closest advisers. Conservative Republicans have called for Annan's resignation and threatened to withhold U.S. funding. And the United States has disputed his claim that a report by the U.N. oil-for-food inquiry had exonerated him.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is resisting calls for his resignation.
(Spencer Platt -- Getty Images)
"The honeymoon has ended rather brutally," said Shashi Tharoor, a senior U.N. official who has served with Annan for more than a decade. Tharoor and other Annan supporters say the secretary general's legacy will ultimately eclipse the current controversy. But others -- not only in Congress, but also in the United Nations -- say the record raises fundamental questions about his judgment and integrity.
At the moment, Annan's situation is reminiscent of a Greek tragedy: The same qualities that powered his rise -- a passion for compromise, a desire to please the most powerful U.N. states and an intense loyalty to an inner circle of bureaucrats -- can also be seen as contributing to his decline. Some members of his inner circle have abused their authority, and his efforts to patch up relations with the United States have undermined his standing with other U.N. members.
He has sought to regain his balance in recent weeks, prodding the Security Council to act more decisively on war crimes in Sudan and launching initiatives to restructure or restore accountability to a number of U.N. agencies. But even his power to change the institution has come into question.
"My feeling is that Kofi has shrunk in stature somewhat in the last year," said Stephen C. Schlesinger, director of the New School's World Policy Institute and a former U.N. adviser, who still considers him the world's "moral authority." Even as Annan's new chief of staff, Mark Malloch Brown of Britain, has taken steps to restore confidence in the United Nations, Schlesinger said, some of these steps have "given the impression that Kofi is kind of losing control."
In a brief interview, Annan, 67, was both contrite and combative.
"I admit that I have made mistakes," he said. "Maybe, in retrospect, some of the people who were put in certain positions were not ideally suited." But he insisted that Benon Sevan, the man he appointed to lead the oil-for-food program, and who has since been accused of compromising its integrity, was "considered suitable" for the job and had the Security Council's confidence.
Annan said he "firmly believes" he can lead the United Nations through the final two years of his second term. And referring to Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who was the first to call for Annan's resignation, he said: "With all due respect, he wasn't one of those who elected or appointed me, and I will never have the nerve to ask any U.S. senator to resign."
Annan, the descendant of Ghanaian tribal chiefs, has worked at the United Nations since 1962, climbing to the top of its departments of management, finance and peacekeeping.
From March 1993 to December 1996, he presided over an unprecedented expansion of the U.N. peacekeeping mission. He oversaw two of the world body's most tragic episodes -- the failures to halt the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the 1995 killing of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys -- but he also impressed U.S. officials by supporting the use of force to halt atrocities by Bosnian Serbs.
In summer 1995, Annan broke ranks with then-Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, delegating U.N. authority to a NATO general to carry out airstrikes against Bosnian Serbs. The next year, the Clinton administration rewarded Annan by leading an unpopular battle to block Boutros-Ghali's reelection to a second term.
"Kofi was perfect," Madeleine K. Albright, who was serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations then, said in an interview. "He was completely attuned to the needs of the United Nations and willing to push for reforms."
In January 1997, Annan became the U.N.'s seventh secretary general. He helped avert war in Iraq in 1998, managed East Timor's transition to independence in 2002, persuaded then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to restore U.S. funding to the United Nations and boosted staff morale to a point not seen since the tenure of Dag Hammarskjold. He also cut a thousand U.N. jobs, raised the profile of the Geneva-based human rights office, strengthened relief operations and created a cabinet-style management team that weakened traditional U.N. fiefdoms.