The sonorous voice is familiar around the world. No matter what the crisis of the day, Kofi Annan's soft baritone always manages to convey a sense of imperturbable gravitas. Yet his calm must have been sorely tested last week when the U.N. Secretary-General learned more about the latest trouble lapping at his door. Annan had gathered a few top aides at a private site to discuss the scandal over the U.N.'s management of the oil-for-food program during the reign of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. In the middle of the discussion, a staff member's cell phone rang with unsettling news: another story was about to break, this one about suspicious payments to Annan's son Kojo from the Swiss company Cotecna Inspection S.A., which won an oil-for-food contract in 1998. Annan, a man famously immune to anger, allowed "a look of surprise and dismay to cross his face," says someone who was there, "and his jaw started clenching and unclenching. Then he said very quietly, 'Let's get on with the agenda.'" On Nov. 29, speaking to reporters a few days after the revelations about his son started pouring out, he addressed the mess with his characteristic cool: "Naturally, I was very disappointed and surprised. I understand the perception problem for the U.N., the perception of conflict of interest and wrongdoing."
That "perception problem" has given further ammunition to Annan's U.S. critics, mainly Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators, who have made him the latest target in their long-running feud with the U.N. For years--decades, in fact--these conservatives have alternately denounced or dismissed the international body for its inefficiency and bias. Their view of the U.N. sank to new lows after the Security Council refused to authorize the invasion of Iraq. But nothing has done more to tarnish U.N. credibility than the metastasizing oil-for-food scandal, which has grown from a fringe obsession among conservative ideologues to the subject of five separate congressional investigations. All this has trained the hot lights on Annan, a second-term Secretary- General and Nobel Peace laureate who finds himself fighting to defend his office in the face of a small but determined band of congressional foes. After holding a single public hearing, Senator Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican chairing one of the congressional inquiries, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week that "Kofi Annan should resign, because the most extensive fraud in the history of the U.N. occurred on his watch." Administration officials distanced themselves from Coleman's remarks, but the White House hardly offered him a vote of confidence. When asked whether Annan should take the fall for the scandal, President Bush said only, "I look forward to a good, honest appraisal of what went on."