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BOOK REVIEW: Veteran Foreign Correspondent Stanley Meisler Writes Fair, Balanced Biography of Kofi Annan – ‘A Man of Peace in a World of War’

Posted by kinchendavid on January 21, 2007

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen
Huntington News Network Book Critic

Hinton, WV – Although it’s obvious from Stanley Meisler’s biography “Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War” (John Wiley & Sons, photos, notes, index, 384 pages, $30.00) that the author admires much about the former UN Secretary General, it’s also evident that this is not an authorized biography.

Full Disclosure: Stanley Meisler was a foreign correspondent at the Los Angeles Times from 1967 to 1997, serving in Nairobi, Mexico City, Madrid, Toronto and Paris and ending his career at the newspaper covering the UN. I worked as a reporter at the L.A. Times from 1976 to 1990 and our paths didn’t cross. I admired Stan’s work and read his dispatches carefully during what I consider to be a golden age at the newspaper. I instinctively knew that a Meisler story was fair and accurate, written in a graceful, forceful style. We’ve kept in touch by email and when I heard he was writing a biography of Annan, I asked him to have the publisher send me a review copy.

Born in 1938 in the British colony of Gold Coast, which became Ghana in 1957, Annan was the son of upper middle class parents – his father was a manager in charge of cocoa buying for the African subsidiary of Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch conglomerate. Kofi Atta Annan attended a prep school modeled on the ones in England, went on to study at a Gold Coast technical university and received a Ford Foundation scholarship to attend Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn in 1959, graduating in 1961. He earned a master’s degree from M.I.T. in 1972 while he was rising through the ranks of United Nations bureaucracy.

It’s important to note that Annan, as the author repeatedly stresses, is a product of the UN; he’s not only the first black African to be secretary-general, he’s the first S-G to rise through the ranks to the highest position of the world body. It’s also important to note, as does Meisler, that Annan has harshly criticized the backwardness of most African nations, including his own Ghana. Annan points to the “Tigers” of Asia – many of them former colonies – and how they’ve succeeded as resource-rich African nations have been looted by tyrants and monsters. His willingness to criticize Africa and insist that it stop blaming colonialism for all the continent’s problems has increased Annan’s stature in my eyes.

Meisler does something I wish more biographers would do: He provides a time line or chronology, so we can trace major events in the life of Annan. This is particularly important from about 1993 on, when Kofi Annan was named (February 1993) undersecretary-general in charge of peacekeeping operations by his predecessor as S-G, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt.

Speaking of the oddly named Coptic Christian from Egypt, Meisler provides a detailed account of the efforts by U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright (later named Clinton’s secretary of state and derisively called Madeleine Halfbright by her detractors) to deny the Egyptian a second five-year term as secretary-general – at the same time working more or less secretly to have Annan named secretary-general.

The UN’s secretary-general is appointed by the UN’s General Assembly for a five-year, renewable term, subject to the unanimous approval of the Security Council. On instructions from President Clinton, Albright vetoed the second term for Boutros-Ghali, with the Security Council voting 14-1 to give him a second term. The veto stirred up cries of U.S. unilateralism, but the Security Council gave the nod to Annan and the Clinton strategy worked.

It’s important to note that U.S. unilateralism toward the UN didn’t begin with Bush the Younger; Bill Clinton obviously thought the U.S. educated Annan would be more favorable to the U.S. in the world body. Of course, the disdain for Annan and the UN ramped up exponentially during the Bush Administration, culminating with the appointment of John R. Bolton – a very undiplomatic critic of the UN, as Meisler takes pains to point out – as U.S. Ambassador to the UN in a recess appointment in 2005. Bolton resigned from the post at the end of 2006.

The book’s subtitle is, if anything, an understatement; since Annan’s appointment as peacekeeping chief in 1993, the world has seen war after war, genocide after genocide, ethnic cleansing after ethnic cleansing in places as varied as Somalia, Rwanda, the Congo, Kosovo, Bosnia, East Timor and – most recently and still continuing – the Darfur region of Somalia, where Arab Muslims are raping and murdering African Muslims in what the current President Bush has called a genocide. Of course the Israeli-Palestinian conflict endures, with no end in sight.

Man’s so-called “inhumanity to man” is, in my opinion, a misnomer, since it seems that the normal condition of humanity is for its members to rape, starve and kill each other at increasing rates. By all accounts, Kofi Annan, whatever his faults as an administrator – and Meisler points out many – is an honorable, decent man caught up on the seemingly unending cycle of human violent behavior that marked his two terms of office that began at the beginning of 1997 and ended Dec. 31, 2006.

Meisler comments on Page 241 that “Kofi Annan does not have a combative, stubborn or fiercely independent personality. But he has a deep sense of moral integrity, of duty to the United Nations and its charter, and of the need for patience and discussion before action. These qualities would often put him at odds with the Bush White House throughout the Iraq crisis and war.”

The author doesn’t indulge in psychological speculations of what led to the end of Annan’s first marriage to Titi Alakija of Nigeria with a separation in 1980 and a divorce three years later. They married in 1965 – a marriage that produced a non-controversial daughter and a very controversial son, Kojo Annan.

Meisler deals frankly and comprehensively with the involvement of international playboy Kojo in the Iraq oil for food scandal, investigated by Paul Volcker’s committee, which found no fault with the secretary-general, Meisler says. Like many parents, Kofi Annan is fiercely protective of his son and refused to break off contact with him, despite the world of woe Kojo brought upon his dad.

In 1981, Kofi Annan met divorced Swedish lawyer and artist Nane Lagergren, who was working in Geneva with Annan at the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. They married in 1984, following Annan’s 1983 divorce from Titi. If I were doing a movie version of Kofi Annan’s life, I would center it on these personal events in the life of Annan. Who knows? Maybe there is a movie in the works! I’d like to see Greta Scacchi as Nane and Don Cheadle (wonderful in “Hotel Rwanda” and “Crash”) as Annan. It was obviously love at first sight for the two.

Stanley Meisler has produced a masterful, if at times overly sympathetic, look at a complex, thoughtful and thoroughly human Kofi Annan. The book is a major achievement by one of my favorite reporters and writers, who has already produced a warts-and-all history of the world body entitled “United Nations: The First 50 Years” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995, paperback edition, 1997).

For more on Meisler’s writing, which includes contributions to the L.A. Times and Smithsonian magazine, visit his web site: http://www.stanleymeisler.com

Publisher’s web site: http://www.wiley.com.

By the way, Wiley is celebrating its bicentennial this year; it was founded in 1807. Congratulations to a distinguished American publisher!

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