The triumph of the therapeutic over the tragic.
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
Everyone seems to take some joy in listening to outgoing secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, especially during the holidays. But just as with other such ethicists as a lip-biting Bill Clinton or creased-browed Jimmy Carter, Annan is as publicly acclaimed as he is privately ignored. We like such itinerant moralists — more when they are off the job than on, and always in retrospect rather than contemporaneously. As we watch them hedge, we somehow feel apologetic rather than outraged over their latest deception.
The secretary-general — introduced with fulsome praise by Sen. Chuck Hagel — recently gave a remarkable farewell speech at the Truman Library. It was delivered in his customary soothing inflection with impeccable diction, and it was just as customarily predictable — the content was as historically inaccurate as it was exemplary of what we have now come to know as “Annanism.”
In Never-Never Land
The first component of Annanism is the use of distortion. How surreal to hear the secretary-general in his encomium mention that Harry Truman had ordered the first and only military use of “the bomb.”
Such a unilateral decision to use overwhelming violence to prevent far greater and inevitable violence was an example of just the sort of tragic, tough decision-making that must take place outside the never-never land of the United Nations.
Both North Korea and Iran have ignored U.N. warnings about nuclear proliferation as they press on to acquire bombs with which to threaten nearby democracies. Hundreds of thousands may have heard Kofi Annan’s polished homilies as they perished en masse in Darfur — all this coming on the heels of the slaughters in Rwanda and the Balkans, and mass starvation in North Korea. What has the U.N. done about all of this? It has availed itself of its luxury of doing nothing.
Annan then went on to praise Truman for relying on “collective security” by turning to the United Nation in the Korean crisis — in obvious contrast, apparently, to George Bush’s intervention in Iraq. But Annan conveniently left out the salient fact that Truman could count on U.N. cover only because Russia — in protest over treatment of Red China — had for a time removed itself from the Security Council, ensuring veto-free resolutions for action.
In his veiled reference to Iraq, there was no mention of the vested interests of both France and Russia in keeping lucrative oil concessions and commerce with the Hussein regime. Nor did Annan acknowledge that the U.S. contingent in 2003 comprised a smaller percentage of the allied coalition than was true of the U.N. force in 1950, or that more nations showed up to fight Saddam Hussein than had against Kim il-Sung.
Annan failed to note that Bill Clinton saved the Bosnians and Kosovars only by not going to the U.N., where a sure Russian veto would have embarrassed the American effort to stop that genocide at Europe’s doorstep. Thousands are alive today because of that decision. Yet one cannot expect a United Nations megaphone to dwell on U.N. amorality; it is a condemnation he reserves for assailing the United States.
The Look of Responsibility
Next the secretary-general derided interventions (like Iraq) and contrasted them with “our shared responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity — a responsibility solemnly accepted by all nations at last year’s U.N. summit.” This was a cruel jest worthy of Tolkien’s wizard Saruman.
When has the U.N. ever “accepted” anything approaching a “shared responsibility”? Both Saddam and the Taliban murdered with impunity. Iran has not only violated U.N. non-proliferation accords, but serially promised to wipe out Israel, and thus get credit for a first Holocaust it now denies to Hitler.
It is precisely because “all nations” in fact do not care when millions are butchered that the U.N. has become increasingly irrelevant and the United States has acted. It is not America that places those with blood on their hands on human rights commissions. U.S. soldiers, unlike U.N. peacekeepers, are punished if they commit mayhem and rape. A wise move would be for Mr. Annan to insist that U.N. troops are truly subject to rules of behavior fashioned on U.S. codes of military conduct.
The secretary-general next sermonized on American responsibility to provide global leadership in matters of trade and commerce. But he ignored entirely the role of the U.S. Navy that nearly alone keeps the peace on the world’s oceans, stops piracy, and tries to adjudicate disputes in far-strung seas like the Aegean, the Persian Gulf, and the waters off Japan.
By any fair measure the current international renegade in matters of trademark infringement, copyright violation, or cutthroat acquisition of resources is an undemocratic China. Yet we know that Annan would not go to Beijing to lecture to that unpredictable Communist dictatorship about its felonies when he can better harangue his patient American hosts about their supposed misdemeanors.
If Annan is really concerned about greater equity with the former third world, a good place to begin would be the European Union’s agricultural subsidies that harm the ability of impoverished nations to earn foreign income, or the amoral European policy of selling things like reinforced bunkers to Saddam’s Iraq or precision machine tools to Iran.
Annan’s third writ against the U.S. was our supposed betrayal of the rule of law:
That is why this country has historically been in the vanguard of the global human rights movement. But that lead can only be maintained if America remains true to its principles, including in the struggle against terrorism. When it appears to abandon its own ideals and objectives, its friends abroad are naturally troubled and confused.
Here, too, there is deception. Unlike a China, Russia, or even the E.U. membership — countries that all wiretap and detain much more freely — George Bush (unlike the secretary-general) is subject to the oversight of an elected Congress and an independent judiciary.
Nothing in the Patriot Act is antithetical to our “ideals and objectives” or even approaches the zeal of the wartime Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, or Kennedy administrations. That the Patriot Act came in consequence to the mass murder of 9/11 and 25 years of serial terrorism from the Middle East makes no impression on Annan, who apparently worries often about infringements on free speech. Here is a moralist who says nothing of the spread of Islamism among millions of Muslims, a fascism that is global in its ability to stifle all sorts of expression and now apparently can reach Europe in its intimidation of cartoonists, opera producers, novelists, film-makers, and high school teachers.
Note that nowhere in Annan’s lamentations was there any remorse about the $50 billion Oil-for-Food scandal, much less his own son’s murky Billy-Carter-like role in it. Nor do we hear of the Annan family’s petty moral slipperiness — whether exporting luxury cars under the auspices of U.N. tax immunity or farming out government-subsidized apartments to relatives. Annan talks global and acts local.
The Man Who Plays to Form
So what is Annanism?
First, it is the reification of Western subliminal guilt. American and European elites feel bad about their wealth, bad about their leisure, bad about their history — but usually not bad enough to do anything that might jeopardize their present privileged positions. And so into this psychological disconnect steps an articulate handsome totem from abroad, in requisite stylish dress and aristocratic mellifluousness, to lecture Westerners with moral pieties — as they smile and snore.
In contrast, who wants a ruddy, uncouth, Walrus-mustached John Bolton railing about the sort of U.N. inaction that allows millions to perish and thugs to operate freely?
Such embarrassments might actually cause the U.N. to do something that would require sacrifices in lives and treasure for the greater good. How much better to be charmed into somnolence than awakened by horrific reality. How much better for the soul to be gently chided with moral platitudes about Western insensitivity than electro-shocked about Middle Eastern, African, or Asian genocide that will go on until someone does something very messy to stop it.
Second, Annanism represents the triumph of moral obtuseness: talk about threats to the rule of law or the need for transparency and honesty in global communications and commerce, while ignoring scandal and fraud on a monumental scale that not only enriches cronies and relatives, but contributes to the deaths of innocents in Iraq.
Third, Annanism reflects petty hypocrisy. There is a reason why Annan, like the thousands of hangers-on in the U.N., enjoys New York; there is a reason why he and his equally critical spouse prefer Western culture in places like Manhattan. He knows that the unique social, economic, and cultural life of the United States can subsidize lavish salaries at the U.N., and that with life in an affluent and safe West comes pricey luxury cars and tony apartments.
Annan also knows that one way to keep enjoying them is to keep reminding his hosts of their sins, in the fashion of the medieval court jester sans the loud stripes, cap, and bells. So there is something very creepy about the moral poseur remonstrating from Manhattan about the lapses of the United States in general, and in particular the neglect of the world’s poor. Both can be addressed more effectively and more honestly from a Rwanda, Kosovo, Kabul, or Ghana.
With Annanism we are witnessing the triumph of the therapeutic over the tragic. We live in a time when morality is defined by wrinkled brows, not action, and a moral sense is found in barking at a benevolent host while purring to dangerous carnivores.
In a society that values style over substance, rhetoric over action, and sanitized platitudes over grisly details, if Kofi Annan were not secretary-general of the United Nations we would have had to invent something very much like him.
©2006 Victor Davis Hanson