Kofi Annan's Iraq Blunder

Opponents of the war in Iraq have used many choice words to describe the U.S.-led military action there.

Few have merit, but do any make less sense than “illegal”? Yet that is what United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) called the war in an interview with the BBC, (search) adding that “I hope we do not see another Iraq-type operation for a long time.”

U.S. allies who had supported the liberation of Baghdad, including Britain, Australia, Poland, Bulgaria and Japan, immediately condemned his remarks — and rightly so. It was only the latest in a long line of blunders by Annan, whose leadership on the world stage, from Rwanda (search) to Iraq to the Sudan (search), has proven a spectacular failure.

But, some may ask, can’t Annan express his opinion? Yes, but his ill-considered jibe carries serious repercussions. It undercuts efforts to stabilize postwar Iraq efforts that have been endorsed by the U.N. Security Council. It stigmatizes the embryonic Iraqi government and strengthens the hand of Iraqi insurgents (search) and foreign terrorists determined to strangle democracy and defeat the U.S.-led, U.N.-backed security operation.

Why would Annan want to undermine the U.N.’s own efforts in Iraq at a time when the world body faces mounting criticism for failing to respond effectively to international crises?

Annan’s statement that the war was “illegal” is both false and spurious. By Annan’s logic, the 1999 U.S./British-led intervention in Kosovo (search), which was conducted without benefit of a Security Council resolution (search), also was “illegal” despite the fact that the international community supported it.

It’s true that Washington failed to convince Paris and Moscow to vote for a final Security Council resolution that explicitly endorsed the use of force if Iraq’s dictatorship continued to renege on its legal commitments to disarm. But the Security Council unanimously passed resolution 1441 in November 2002, which threatened “serious consequences” if Iraq failed to do so. And Iraq already had defied 16 other Security Council resolutions on disarmament, human rights abuses and support for terrorism.

Moreover, Iraq technically put itself into a state of war with the United States by violating the cease-fire that ended the 1991 Gulf War. Long before the 2003 war, Iraqi forces were shooting daily at American and British warplanes assigned to enforce the U.N.-imposed “no-fly zones” over Iraq.

The Clinton administration chose to ignore these attacks and other cease-fire violations, but the Bush administration decided to take action in view of Iraq’s manifest failure to prove that it had dismantled its prohibited programs to build weapons of mass destruction and missiles that threatened its neighbors. The U.N. Charter explicitly recognizes the right of every state to act in self-defense, a fact that Annan curiously neglects.

Annan’s ill-timed comments should be seen as a poorly judged attempt to indirectly influence the U.S. presidential election. The notion of U.S. isolation is a myth that Annan is keen to promote on the world stage. He ignores the fact that more than 30 allies are backing the U.S. with troops on the ground in Iraq, including 12 of the 25 members of the European Union (search), and 16 out of 26 NATO members.

The U.N. Secretary-General’s gratuitous comments were an extraordinarily undiplomatic and inappropriate intervention from a world figure who is supposed to be a neutral servant of the international community. They raise serious questions regarding Annan’s judgment and his suitability to continue in his post.

Moreover, Annan’s attack illustrates the insecurity running through the corridors of power (or what’s left of it) at the U.N. headquarters. Its prestige and reputation are running at an all-time low. The world body failed spectacularly to deal with the Iraqi dictatorship under Saddam Hussein, is failing to provide leadership in disarming Iran, and is weak-kneed in the face of genocide in the Sudan.

At the same time, it’s facing allegations of mismanagement and corruption relating to its administration of the Iraq Oil-for-Food Program (search).

The U.N. is in steep (and possibly terminal) decline, struggling for relevance in the 21st Century. Mr. Annan’s remarks only further underline his organization’s growing impotence.

James A. Phillips is a research fellow in Middle Eastern Affairs and Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is a fellow in Anglo-American security policy at The Heritage Foundation.