The Magazine

Kofi Annan's Nemesis

By focusing on U.N. corruption, Norm Coleman has made a name for himself.

May 16, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 33 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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IF THE UNITED NATIONS Oil-for-Food scandal brings down Kofi Annan, historians might fix the start of his fall at December 1, 2004. That's when Minnesota senator Norm Coleman published a blistering Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for the secretary general's exit. "As long as Mr. Annan remains in charge," Coleman wrote, "the world will never be able to learn the full extent of the bribes, kickbacks, and under-the-table payments that took place under the U.N.'s collective nose."

Reaction to Coleman's piece was swift. Within days, former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke summoned Annan and a coterie of liberal foreign policy types to his Manhattan home for crisis control. Meanwhile, President Bush affirmed his confidence in the U.N. boss. More recently, on March 29, Annan, asked whether he would resign, ostentatiously said, "Hell, no."

But Coleman hasn't relented. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which he chairs, has completed two hearings on Oil-for-Food. A third hearing--scheduled to begin May 17--will focus on Saddam's use of Oil-for-Food cash to bribe U.N. member states and bankroll terrorism. According to Coleman, Oil-for-Food highlights the world body's twin deficiencies: a lack of transparency and a lack of accountability. He stands by his call for Annan's resignation.

Coleman may seem an unlikely scourge of U.N. corruption. He's an erstwhile Democrat--he joined the Republican party just nine years ago--who co-chaired Bill Clinton's 1996 campaign in the Gopher State and is married to a Hollywood actress. But he's now the bane of Annan and other U.N.-philes, and not just over Oil-for-Food. On the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Coleman has become the most full-throated proponent of John Bolton's confirmation as U.N. ambassador.

"Let's be blunt," Coleman says of the Bolton spat. "This is about ideology." Republicans expected to get Bolton's nomination out of committee weeks ago. But Sen. George Voinovich's unexpected soul-searching scuttled those plans. And it gave anti-Bolton Democrats a chance to broaden their case against the nominee. The thrust of that case--that Bolton can be abrasive with underlings and allegedly bullied U.S. intelligence gatherers--has dominated the airwaves and editorial pages ever since.

Coleman has endeared himself to Bolton supporters as he's made the cable-news rounds of late, dueling with Democratic senators Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Bill Nelson, and others. "I see John Bolton as a tremendous potential ally," Coleman says. "You need a tough advocate if you're going to change the bureaucracy of the U.N." He touts Bolton's multilateral work to secure the repeal of the U.N.'s Zionism-is-racism plank and to cement the 2002 Moscow Treaty on nuclear weapons.

The Minnesota senator also regards Bush's tapping of Bolton as a personal vindication of sorts. "The Bolton nomination is a very loud statement," he says. "Clearly, Kofi has not been exonerated." Nor was Coleman swayed by the second report of the U.N.-authorized Volcker committee, which Annan brandished as an acquittal. Instead, Coleman expressed concern over the Volcker team's "credibility and independence." He has issued two subpoenas to a senior U.N. investigator, Robert Parton, who claims he quit the probe because of its pro-Annan bias.

Such crusading has boosted Coleman's image with GOP conservatives. Some liberals have even likened him to former Republican senator Jesse Helms--who blocked payment of American dues until the U.N. overhauled its bulky apparatus. Helms eventually got his way. But Annan has thus far managed to parry Coleman's blows and keep his job, partly because outrage over Oil-for-Food has yet to reach a fever pitch.

Still, Coleman threw the floodlights on Annan's mismanagement. He "put [Oil-for-Food] on the front burner," says Rep. Mark Kennedy, a fellow Minnesota Republican. "He did the most to put it in America's public consciousness." Rep. Chris Shays, leader of the House's Oil-for-Food inquiry, concurs. "Senator Coleman is a terrific senator," Shays says. "He's very articulate and he's very aggressive--and I think he's playing an important role."

But not everyone judges Coleman's motives as pure. Critics paint him as a savvy opportunist. "Norm Coleman is a politician's politician," says Mike Erlandson, chairman of Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party. "This guy's driven by ambition." Though he entered the Senate only in January 2003, Coleman has climbed the GOP ladder with notable speed. Late last year, he narrowly lost to Sen. Elizabeth Dole in a bid to run the party's Senate campaign committee. No doubt he aspires to a prime leadership position, and maybe more.