John Hughes

Two men whose names were known around the globe, and who held positions of power and authority, left office last week. Both had been lauded for their stature and ability: one of them as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the other in generous remarks by the president of the US. Both were hailed for their accomplishments, but both by the time of their departure had lost the confidence of their respective constituencies.

One was Kofi Annan, the Ghana-born but Americanised UN secretary-general. The other was the one-time Navy pilot and corporate chieftain-turned-US secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld. I was fortunate to have worked with both men in earlier roles. In the UN regime of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Annan was in charge of UN peacekeeping, the disposition of troops contributed from many nations to keep the peace in troubled areas around the world, notably the Balkans. In the US administration of Ronald Reagan, Rumsfeld was special negotiator to the Middle East, reporting to Secretary of State George Shultz. Both Annan and Rumsfeld were brilliant in different ways but could not have had more diverse personalities. Annan was soft-spoken, gracious, and the diplomatic persuader. Rumsfeld was intense, driven, the impatient fixer in search of solutions.

Annan set out to tackle the UN’s bureaucratic torpor and reform the political process that hampered critical decision-making. His tenure was overtaken by scandals that eclipsed the UN’s positive accomplishments, and by the blatant self-interest of powerful nations that stalled response to humanitarian demands. Rumsfeld set out to modernise the US military, creating smaller, fast-moving units that could respond to regional warfare with new 21st-century technology. His concepts worked well in Afghanistan, where the Taliban was swiftly dispatched, and in Iraq, where fast-moving US forces reached Baghdad in days and ultimately captured Saddam Hussein. But thereafter, long months of turmoil, debilitating urban guerrilla warfare, and scandals such as the one at Abu Ghraib prison, lost the patience of the American people and cost Rumsfeld his post.

Both Annan and Rumsfeld, two decent men caught up by events, are like characters in a Greek tragedy. Annan opposed the Iraq war; Rumsfeld supported it. True to the last, Rumsfeld shared Bush’s belief that the military venture into Iraq was an essential assault against tyranny in that country, and part of a noble campaign to bring freedom to Iraq and other nations of the Middle East. Though Annan and Rumsfeld shared a common passion for relieving the ills of mankind, they were diametrically opposed over the means to accomplish it.

Now a new United Nations secretary-general, South Korean Ban Ki Moon, and a new US secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, succeed them. They, too, might learn that spreading democracy to the Islamic lands is fraught with numerous complexities.