Frederic Eckhard, the United Nations spokesman for eight and a half of Kofi Annans 10 years as secretary-general, was certainly well placed to write a tell-all account of that action-packed era.
But readers of Eckhard’s new book, “Kofi Annan: A Spokesperson’s Memoir,” get that and something more. Along with the insider accounts, there’s the portrait that emerges of Eckhard himself, an admirable spokesman who helped Annan guide the UN through an extraordinarily productive period.
Eckhard said he never intended to write a book about his years as Annan’s mouthpiece, so he kept no notes. But after stepping down in 2005, he wondered what he could to help people remember Annan’s accomplishments alongside the whiplash he suffered from his resistance to the United States-led invasion of Iraq.
This memoir, therefore, is mostly an affectionate, even tender, look at what Annan achieved and what made him tick. But it is at times a very frank — sometimes brutally honest — portrayal.
For those seeking insight into how history is made, it is particularly valuable to have this volume so soon after the publication of Annan’s own memoir, “Interventions: A Life in War and Peace,” as the two are complementary in many ways. “Interventions” is more a philosophical look at what Annan tried to achieve and how he fared. “A Spokesperson’s Memoir” focuses on the cast that was working in the background.
Full disclosure: I lived at the UN during Annan’s last seven years at the top, as a reporter for the Reuters news agency; I greatly admire Annan and depended on Eckhard for my livelihood.
But looking back, we all must know better than ever by now how lucky we were to have Annan as the chief international diplomat during those daunting years. To drive home that point, Eckhard has given space at the end of the book to a grab-bag of fellow world leaders, diplomats and others to opine on how Annan will be remembered. They give him very positive marks, divided pretty much only on whether he was the second best secretary-general after Dag Hammarskjold, Dag’s equal or possibly his better.
Eckhard sets the bar high in judging his own role. Asked by an associate to inform a newly arrived journalist of his “philosophy as spokesperson,” he responded simply, “Never tell a lie.”
As his book makes clear, this guidance — so rarely respected these days— served him well. Eckhard was never one to even embellish an accomplishment or gloss over a mistake.
With one notable exception. In 1999, when the company employing Annan’s son Kojo, said that he was not on its payroll when it won a big contract from the UN oil-for-food program, several senior UN officials accepted this assertion and Eckhard repeated it. “I had no reason to think it was anything but accurate,” he said.
When the truth was uncovered some five years later, it gave a major opening to George W. Bush’s neocons, the news media and oil-for-food investigator Paul Volcker, all of whom were soon linking Annan to UN misconduct and mismanagement.
A conflict of interest over the contract’s award was never proven, but then Benon Sevan, the oil-for-food administrator appointed by the UN, took exile in his native Cyprus after charges that he had illegally profited from the program. The drumbeat of investigative findings soon shattered Annan’s ability to lead as he had before.
It is easy, as Eckhard does, to blame Annan’s woes on Washington’s desire to seek revenge after the secretary-general deemed the invasion of Iraq “illegal” because it failed to win Security Council approval. And it is unquestionably true that the neocons, savage defenders of American exceptionalism, relished the idea of rendering the UN irrelevant, so that the US could continue as the world’s unrivaled superpower. To many at the UN, including Eckhard, who is American, the true UN “scandal” was mostly the fault of the Security Council and various national governments and had little to do with the UN Secretariat led by Annan.
But the scandal gave the right wing a huge gift. By late 2004, American lawmakers were calling for Annan to resign and for the UN’s wings to be clipped.
Under the strain, Annan lost his drive. He became withdrawn. When an aide, during a strategy meeting, called for more attention to the “long haul,” the secretary-general responded, “These days one doesn’t know how long the haul will be.”
“I felt I was being hit by a truck,” Eckhard wrote. But to him, resignation was never an option. “It would have been the same as an admission of guilt. For the neoconservatives, who were leading the attack against him, the failure in Iraq was their failure. They had their 15 minutes of fame defining US foreign policy and they blew it. Kofi would survive them — if he could get himself together emotionally.”
In the end, this is what happened. The soft-spoken Annan soon regained his own determination, responding with an uncharacteristic “Hell, no” when asked at a news conference whether he might step down. He went on to complete an active second term.
Shortly before that, in spring 2005, while the oil-for-food crisis was still bubbling away, Eckhard offered his own resignation. He said he did so for two reasons — to give Annan the option of replacing him as part of a comeback strategy and to allow Eckhard himself to slip into retirement.
It took Annan a few weeks to respond. He called Eckhard to his office and requested that he stay until the end of June, when the Volcker investigation was due to end. “Would that suit you?” Annan asked.
Eckhard was mostly reassured by this response but not entirely. Asking him to stay on until the issuance of Volcker’s final report suggested that “he saw me as part of the solution and not part of the problem,” he writes. “But by asking me in a cool and almost accusatorial way, ‘Would that suit you?’ he could almost have been saying, why are you bailing out now? During the oil-for-food crisis there were too many conversations that we didn’t have and we seemed to have reached a point where we were having difficulty reading each other.”
At the time Eckhard stepped down, he was asked in a farewell interview for CNN whether he had any regrets, and he said he had just one. After learning at 5 a.m. one day that his boss and the UN would share the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize, “I turned to him to give him the news, and took one step towards him to give him a big hug. And then I stopped. What are you doing, I said to myself? He’s the secretary-general.”
“My regret is I didn’t hug him,” Eckhard told the CNN interviewer.
Annan never mentioned the interview, Eckhard said. But at a retirement party attended by the UN press corps, Annan dropped in, “walked up to me in front of everybody, looked at me, then gave me a hug.”
“Kofi Annan: A Spokesperson’s Memoir,” by Frederic Eckhard, Ruder Finn Press, 978-1932646566. (A French language version of the book was published in May 2009.)