Weight of the World: The United Nations Spent the War on the Sidelines, Sent There by a Bush Administration Contemptuous of Its Clout. Can Kofi Annan Make It Relevant Again?

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Byline: Melinda Henneberger

Kofi Annan stepped in front of the TV cameras outside his Athens hotel suite looking spent and surprisingly shaky. Normally known for his cool, the U.N. secretary-general is an opaque but reassuring presence with no visible edges, a man whose own wife claims never to have seen him really angry. The trip to Greece, for back-to-back meetings with European heads of state, was supposed to make the United Nations look less irrelevant by showcasing his considerable standing in the world beyond Washington. But if anyone at the Pentagon tuned in to last month's gathering of the European Union at all, what they saw was Annan emerging from his first meeting, with the prime minister of Sweden, looking almost comically meek. He had been swilling herbal tea in a struggle to hang on to his voice, and began his remarks in a near whisper. After getting out only a line or two, he obediently shushed at the command of a local TV cameraman who wasn't ready for the shot. Then, flustered, and without ever seeming altogether sure he had permission to proceed, he began all over again: "What I was going to say was..." ("F---ing Greeks,'' an aide fumed afterward.) In parting, the Swedish leader, Goran Persson, made a vaguely derogatory comment about American empire-building, but Annan's only response was to stand by, expressionless, trying to impersonate someone who wasn't there at all.

Who could blame him? His organization had been all but left for dead after the U.S.-led Coalition went to war without Security Council approval, briskly won the thing and set straight to work fashioning a new Iraq. Since then, Annan has at times seemed uncharacteristically unsure of himself, and oddly distracted--glancing at his watch in a meeting with his Athens staff and looking around the room even as employees were telling him the office was in an uproar over planned layoffs. Aides find him suddenly terribly tired. "I picked him up at the airport yesterday and saw him quite aged from just last month,'' said Maria-Luisa Chavez, director of the U.N. Information Center in Athens. "It was sad.''

The people who fill up the tall building on the East River are feeling the pressure, too. U.N. officials spent some lonely weeks combing the papers for any mention of their organization, trying to reassure themselves they hadn't been completely forgotten. Now they are back in the news, and with the Coalition struggling to cope with a society threatening to spiral out of control, there does seem to be a dawning realization among American officials that the United Nations, with its long experience in reconstruction efforts, may have something to offer after all. Americans are pushing Annan to appoint a candidate of their choosing, Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, as a U.N. representative in Iraq, though Annan is not so sure he wants to be seen relegating human-rights issues to a back burner. The shift, in any case, is a step sure to gladden multilateralist hearts. "They want to share the blame with more people'' in the complicated aftermath of the war, one U.N. official observes. "That's what we're here for.''

Yet the United Nations has a long way to go to regain the stature it lost over Iraq. In the coming days, the Security Council is set to vote again, on a resolution that would transfer control of Iraq's oil from the United Nations to the United States and the United Kingdom. While U.N. bureaucrats are suitably grateful that the Americans are back before the Council at all, they also remain fearful that what their members have really been asked to do is sign off on the United Nations' own undoing by legitimizing the Coalition's authority in Iraq before all questions about the United Nations' role have been settled. And it's still squarely up to Annan to rebuild the standing and credibility of the organization, where he started as a bottom-rung budget officer four decades ago. …