KOFI ANNAN is not a household word in this country. Some people even think that's Anon. But he is likely to become the best-known United Nations secretary general in decades. And some of the people who put him there will begin to wonder why.
His predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, was Washington's favorite for the job five years ago. The U.N. needed cleaning up. Who better than an outsider? Mr. Boutros-Ghali was an Egyptian diplomat-politician-courtier who had performed nobly in peace-making with Israel under U.S. brokering. He faced a glass ceiling (as a Christian) in his own country, and deserved reward.
Mr. Boutros-Ghali proved, from Washington's point of view, a disappointment. Ambassador Madeleine Albright and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms equally despised him. (You will not catch this column calling those two strange bedfellows, though Mr. Boutros-Ghali might be tempted.)
Mr. Annan, on the other hand, wasn't selected from across the globe. He was just there, standing in line. If it had to be an African, this Ghanaian was ready. If others couldn't get enough votes, no country objected to him. If France insisted on one who spoke French, well, actually, he speaks it.
Washington no longer thinks it a virtue to be an outsider. So much better to have an insider in charge of clean-up. He knows where the bodies are buried; as assistant secretary general for budget and planning, he buried them.
And it is no longer a virtue to be a back-room negotiator. So much better to have a bureaucrat's bureaucrat. Especially one as affable, talking to a large group, as Mr. Annan was in his first press conference. Instead of an habitue of the corridors of power in Cairo, this man has been resident mostly in New York for three decades of service in the corridors of the U.N. The national politics he has been observing are ours.
So Mr. Annan's first job is to put the bite on the hand that fed him. His thanks to Ambassador Albright for shoving him into the job will be to demand Secretary of State Albright use up her political capital to persuade Congress to pay up the U.S. $1.4 billion arrears. She was always saying it would never do that with Mr. Boutros-Ghali in there.
To the well-known deficit-reducer, President Clinton, Mr. Annan will say something like: Congratulations on your world influence, that will cost you $1.4 billion. Senator Helms understands this and already invited him down to Washington for coffee (no pun intended). A reforms-for-billions deal is in the making.
Not only that. When peace-keeping was getting out of hand three years ago, they promoted Mr. Annan to be under secretary for it. Now he is asking benefactor nations to "set up rapidly deployable brigades and battalions that could be moved into the theater very quickly, should the governments decide to participate. . . ." Gee, does that mean the U.S.?
Mr. Annan is likely to become more of an American public figure than his predecessors. He is likely to have a sympathetic following among African-Americans who never really credited Mr. Boutros-Ghali with being African.
And Mr. Annan made it clear that he is not running for a second term. So he does not have to please any government.
That does not mean he opposes the tradition of two terms. It lTC means that as a true U.N.er, he understands that to mean two terms per continent.
What if Americans find they like him and want him to stay for a second term? Ah, then changing the tradition would be Washington's problem.
It appears that the U.S. has put in charge of the U.N. machinery a skilled advocate of it, which is not exactly what the U.N.-bashers encouraging this policy intended.
Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 12/21/96