In his new memoir, “Interventions,” Kofi Annan jokes that “SG,” the abbreviation for his title as U.N. secretary general, carried a second meaning around the organization’s headquarters that more aptly described the role of the world’s top diplomat: scapegoat.

During a four-decade U.N. career, including 10 years in the top job, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate shouldered his share of blame for some of the world’s worst human rights calamities. As the undersecretary general for peacekeeping in the 1990s, Annan bore responsibility for U.N. missions in Bosnia and Rwanda, where peacekeeping forces failed to stem the slaughter of civilians under their watch.

Those failures had many looking for Annan to give an introspective and anguished reckoning of his personal struggles — but they will be disappointed in this memoir. The book, written with his former adviser and speechwriter Nader Mousavizadeh, aims to shore up Annan’s legacy. It provides a fresh opportunity to remind the world that the greatest blame belonged to the globe’s biggest powers, principally the United States, for failing to provide the United Nations with the troops, the firepower and the will to confront evildoers.

Annan is justified in shining a light on the United States, including the Clinton administration, which blocked action in the U.N. Security Council on Rwanda, and the Bush administration, which went to war in Iraq on the back of flimsy evidence and with a post-invasion plan that left the country in chaos. But Annan tends to minimize the consequences of his own decisions, treating the United Nations’ repeated refusal to confront wrongdoers as the inescapable path of an organization forced to do its job with inadequate means.

Rwanda is illustrative. On the eve of that country’s 1994 genocide, the United Nations’ force commander, Canadian Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, fired off a cable to Annan saying that he’d uncovered a plan to exterminate the country’s Tutsi and that he intended to mount an armed raid on a weapons cache that would be used to arm the mass murderers. Annan ordered him to abort the mission, a decision Dallaire saw as disastrous.

"Interventions: A Life in War and Peace" by Kofi Annan and Nader Mousavizadeh (Penguin)

In Annan’s telling, there was no other logical response, given the United Nations’ under-equipped peacekeeping force in Rwanda and the reluctance of the Clinton administration to support a tough reaction in the wake of a debacle in Somalia, where 19 U.S. Army Rangers and members of the elite Delta Force were killed by supporters of a Somali warlord.

To his credit, Annan sought to use the failures of Bosnia and Rwanda to develop a practical strategy for averting new genocide. He recruited national armies — the Australians in East Timor, for instance — to enforce peace in hot conflicts. And he empowered U.N. “blue helmets” in such places as Somalia, Congo and Haiti to use lethal force in limited instances in repelling challenges to the United Nations’ mandates from armed gangs and other spoilers.

It was Annan who shepherded a new international doctrine, the Responsibility to Protect, which places a moral obligation on states to protect their citizens from mass slaughter while pressing powerful nations, principally the United States, to ensure that the use of force is legitimate, preferably with a Security Council mandate.

Annan’s book offers a first-hand survey of efforts to attend to the world’s ills, recalling an alphabet of post-Cold War U.N. peace work from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Perhaps his greatest disappointment is in his own continent, where a generation of post-revolutionary leaders has failed to address its people’s greatest needs. He voices particular dismay over the conduct of former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, who was charged with corruption; former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who questioned the link between HIV and AIDS; and Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, who refused to recognize the enormity of the AIDS epidemic or even discuss the need for condoms.

“Mr. Secretary General, when it comes to condoms, the Pope and I are one,” Mugabe once told Annan, a remark that underscored a deeply rooted social conservatism among African leaders.

Annan also shares some insights into the peculiar charms of some of the world’s mass murderers, recalling being struck by the genteel bearing of Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who stands charged with genocide. “One always imagines that those responsible for great evil should exude it from their very pores. But as with Saddam Hussein — whom I met with on a special visit to Iraq in 1998 in order to attempt to broker a deal that would stop a war — this was a man who seemed cool, polite, and friendly.”

Like that of any secretary general, Annan’s legacy was defined as much by his relationship with the United States and its leaders as by his actions. The Ghanian-born international civil servant studied at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and has been a lifelong admirer of the United States. When the Clinton administration sought a replacement for the United Nations’ Egyptian leader, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, it settled on Annan, who had shared Washington’s belief that the use of firepower in Bosnia could help turn the tide. He had also supported, however belatedly, then-Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright’s case for the use of military force against the Serbs in Kosovo.

In the months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Annan’s relations with the United States worsened as he issued a series of increasingly critical statements, telling the BBC that he considered the U.S. move illegal. He also became an outspoken critic of America’s excesses in the war on terror.

President George W. Bush, meanwhile, installed a sharp critic of the United Nations, John R. Bolton, as his new U.N. envoy. “This was hardly a sign of support for me or the institution,” Annan writes.

A major corruption scandal over the United Nations’ management of the multibillion-dollar oil-for-food program in Iraq, which implicated the top U.N. official managing the program and disclosed that Annan’s son profited from it, weakened the secretary general politically and brought calls from Republican lawmakers for his resignation.

He ultimately survived and completed his two-term tenure as secretary general. Since then, he has led mediation efforts to end a dangerous political standoff in Kenya and later to try to stop Syria’s worsening civil war.

His Syria mediation, which concluded too late for full coverage in the book, ended in a stalemate. When he announced his plans to step down, Annan made it clear that he would not be the scapegoat for what he saw as a collective failure to stem the country’s worsening civil war. He blamed the warring parties for rejecting a diplomatic solution and the big powers on the U.N. Security Council for failing to put enough pressure on the fighters to silence their guns.

“You have to understand,” Annan said in his resignation announcement, “as an envoy, I can’t want peace more than the protagonists, more than the Security Council or the international community for that matter.”

Colum Lynch , the U.N. correspondent for The Washington Post and a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, reported on Annan’s tenure as secretary general for the Boston Globe and The Post.


A Life in War and Peace

By Kofi Annan with Nader Mousavizadeh

Penguin Press. 383 pp. $36