Kofi Annan's Iraq Blunder

Report Middle East

Kofi Annan's Iraq Blunder

September 17, 2004 4 min read

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan described the war with Iraq as an "illegal" violation of the U.N. Charter in a September 16 interview with the BBC, adding that "I hope we do not see another Iraq-type operation for a long time." [1] Annan's remarks were immediately condemned by U.S. allies who had supported the liberation of Iraq, including Great Britain, Australia, Poland, Bulgaria, and Japan, and are likely to also draw a strong response from the White House.[2]

Kofi Annan's ill-considered jibe undercuts efforts to stabilize postwar Iraq that have been endorsed by the U.N. Security Council. It stigmatizes the embryonic Iraqi government, while strengthening the hand of Iraqi insurgents and foreign terrorists determined to strangle democracy in Iraq and inflict a defeat on the U.S.-led, U.N.-backed security force in the country. It is difficult to understand why Annan would want to undermine the U.N.'s own efforts in Iraq at a time when the international organization faces increasing criticism for its failure 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, which was conducted without benefit of a Security Council resolution, also would be "illegal" despite the fact that it was widely supported by the international community. It is 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 did unanimously pass Resolution 1441 in November 2002, which threatened "serious consequences" if Iraq failed to do so. Iraq also defied sixteen other Security Council resolutions on disarmament, human rights, and support for terrorism.

Moreover, Iraq put itself in a state of war with the United States by violating the cease-fire that ended the 1991 Gulf War. Iraqi forces shot at American and British warplanes assigned to enforce the U.N.-imposed "no-fly zones" over Iraq on a daily basis long before the 2003 war. While the Clinton Administration chose to ignore these and most other cease-fire violations, the Bush Administration correctly decided to take action in view of Iraq's manifest failure to prove that it had dismantled its prohibited weapons programs. The U.N. Charter explicitly recognizes the right of every state to act in self-defense, a fact that Annan curiously neglects.

An Ill-Timed Intervention

Kofi Annan's ill-timed comments should be seen as a poorly conceived attempt to undercut the U.S. President's impending address to the U.N. General Assembly and to indirectly influence the electoral debate in the United States. The notion of U.S. isolation, a prominent theme advanced by Senator John Kerry, is a myth that Annan is keen to promote on the world stage. He ignores the fact that the U.S. is backed by over 30 allies with troops on the ground in Iraq, including 12 of the 25 members of the European Union and 16 out of 26 NATO members states.[3]


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 about Annan's judgment and his suitability to continue in his post. The United States should press Secretary-General Annan to clarify his harmful remarks and should demand an apology for the offhand, gratuitous manner in which they were offered.


UN Insecurity

Kofi Annan's attack on the United States over its decision to go to war with Iraq is indicative of the insecurity running through the corridors of power (or what's left of them) at the U.N. headquarters in New York. The prestige and reputation of the U.N. is running at an all time low. The world organization 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, the U.N. faces serious allegations of mismanagement and corruption relating to its administration of the Iraq Oil-for-Food Program. The U.N. is a world body in steep, possibly terminal decline, struggling for relevance in the 21st Century, and Mr. Annan's remarks only further underline his organization's growing impotence.

James A. Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Affairs, and Nile Gardiner Ph.D. is Fellow in Anglo-American Security Policy, at the Heritage Foundation.


[1] BBC News, "Excerpts: Annan Interview," September 16, 2004, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3661640.stm.

[2] BBC News, "Iraq Allies Rebuff U.N. Chief," September 16, 2004, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3661736.stm.

[3] See Nile Gardiner, "The Myth of U.S. Isolation: Why America is Not Alone in the War on Terror," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 558, September 7, 2004, at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Europe/wm558.cfm.



Nile Gardiner
Nile Gardiner

Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow

James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation