Interview with Colum Lynch, UN Correspondent for the Washington Post and FP Blogger

In this interview, Colum Lynch provides insights on the public perception of the United Nations and the leadership of Ban Ki-moon and Kofi Annan. He also discusses the UN’s actions in Côte d’Ivoire and the Arab Spring, and the institution’s changing role in the growing field of multilateral institutions. Lynch also discusses some notable UN stories, including a few of the scandals that he says sometimes unraveled like a cops-and-robbers story. “There were feuds inside feuds,” he said, noting one where a former British intelligence official was investigated for possibly setting off a bomb under the bed of his Albanian colleague.

The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations and former UN correspondent for The New York Times.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript

Warren Hoge (WH): I’m here in the Global Observatory today with an old friend, Colum Lynch, the respected, long-time UN correspondent of The Washington Post and before that, The Boston Globe. In addition, Colum now writes the widely read Turtle Bay blog for the Foreign Policy magazine website, that won the 2011 National Magazine Award for best news reporting in digital media. A man who has leapt nimbly from old media to new, he has more than 8,000 followers on Twitter.

I should also mention that from 2004-2008, I was the UN correspondent of The New York Times, and I can tell you that each morning one of my first chores was to call up The Washington Post website and type in the one word, “Colum,” and see what my chief competitor had been up to. Colum is very industrious and very knowing about what’s going on in the UN community and beyond, so there was maddeningly almost always something up-to-date to read under his name. Colum, welcome to IPI’s Global Observatory.

First of all, I want to ask you, when you add up The Boston Globe years and The Washington Post years, how long have you been covering the UN?

Colum Lynch (CL): I try not to count, but I’ve been covering it for The Washington Post since June 1999, and writing for The Boston Globe before that, I covered it on and off from the mid-1990s, the end of the Balkans conflict, the revisiting of the weaknesses of the Rwanda operation. I covered New York as well, but that is when I started peeking in at the UN and following it with some sort of intensity later. So it’s been a long time.

WH: Aside from how the UN handles public information, which I want to ask you specifically about in a moment, what would you say are the major ways the UN has changed in those two decades that you have known it? The ways in which its global impact may have grown or diminished.

CL: It’s hard to see it that way. It ebbs and flows, reaches points where it seems to be growing increasingly sidelined, irrelevant, and then it has a way of bouncing back. No one really could have predicted, if you looked at, say, the period of greatest intensity in the run-up to the Iraq war, where I think in that year I had over 40 front page stories for The Washington Post, something I haven’t even come close to matching since then. And then you have a long period of enormous confrontation between, particularly Russia, Sergei Lavrov when he became foreign minister essentially feeling like he had been taken for a ride over the decision to go to war without a UN resolution and the effort to try and ensure that any resolution after that would not be used as a sort of cover for military action.

WH: Lavrov, of course, having been the UN Ambassador of Russia before that.

CL: Right. So you had a period which, there was a lot of activity, it wasn’t like the days of the Cold War when nothing was happening, but it wasn’t, sort of, the chief theater for international diplomacy that it had been, in that period.

Then you look at what happened in the last year and a half, and the UN role in overthrowing the leader who lost the election in Côte d’Ivoire, President Gbagbo, the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime. When that stuff was happening, I couldn’t have even imagined that the Council could rally around such decisive, such violent action in the world. They had been operating under constraints I didn’t think could be overcome. It gives you a sense of how dynamic and fluid things are in the Security Council, how it can seem like it’s doing nothing, and all of a sudden it can become this extraordinarily powerful hammer. I think people forget that.

There was an article on the blog that Walter Russell Mead wrote earlier this week where he was talking about the fecklessness of the UN. He was using the inability to take decisive action in Syria and North Korea, and it looks that way, but if you go back a year, it makes you realize that things can change quite dramatically once a certain moment comes and there is enough political pressure to make things happen. So I would say it’s all about ebbs and flows, but they’re certainly big players in a lot of key places. On Syria, the diplomacy looks messy, it looks perhaps hopeless, maybe not, but the UN is at the center of this for good or ill.

WH: Another thing that happened in the case of Côte d’Ivoire—I share your judgment that it was a really important moment for the UN. Ban Ki-moon and the UN reacted in ways I could have never imagined they would do.

The other aspect of that which interested me was, we talk often of the fact that one of the ways the UN is most effective is when it’s working in concert with regional organizations, and we talk about the growth of regional organization power. In the case of the Côte d’Ivoire, you had ECOWAS really in there, you had three presidents flying into Abidjan to try and pressure Gbagbo to go. Were you as struck by that as I was?

CL: The thing that really struck me—ECOWAS and the Nigerians had been playing the security role going back to the 1990s, so they had been doing a lot of peacekeeping, and they had been trying to develop this role where they can sort of play the lead role as key mediator and key peacemaker. You see it happening in Somalia; African troops engaging in quite violent exchanges with al-Shabaab. You’ve seen a lot of that in West Africa, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and other places.

I thought what was kind of interesting about this case was that you saw the emerging power struggle between the Nigerians who had taken a very hard line against Gbagbo, demanding that he had to leave, and the South Africans, who were looking to assert themselves in an area that the Nigerians thought was their sphere of influence. There was a moment where South Africa, in a show kind of, of its role in the region, brought one of its warships outside the coast of Côte d’Ivoire, which it said was there to facilitate the diplomatic process, but I’m sure sent a signal to others that maybe they were willing to flex some muscle in the region.

I thought that was kind of interesting that, as you say, the evolution of regional players in the last year, you couldn’t have imagined the Arab League having supported resolutions criticizing their own members’ human rights record, supporting a no-fly zone, military action in Libya; the role they have been playing in trying to nudge President Assad from power and push for a political transition there. I think it’s quite extraordinary to see them doing those sorts of things.

There are issues at the same time of the Arab League’s credibility, the role of a number of very undemocratic governments in the Gulf that had been put into pushing the agenda, taking a much more assertive role, promoting democratic change in places like Libya and Syria, while at the same time not making much, in terms of advances, in their own countries. But it’s been interesting, it’s been a messy process like it has been with the African Union and ECOWAS, but it’s been interesting to see them stepping up to the plate in a way that you couldn’t have imagined a year-and-a-half ago.

WH: Colum, you mentioned South Africa. After the failure in 2005-2006 of Security Council reform that would have put a number of people onto the Council, numbers of those countries chose the route of becoming members for two years. The Germans did, Japan did, South Africa did, India did, Brazil did. Do you think they served their purpose well? Was their performance on the Security Council, would it have persuaded the existing P5 that these guys really deserve to be on the Council?

CL: I guess it depends on what day of the week you’re talking about and which member of the Security Council you are talking to. I think the experience for the Americans and the French and the British—from their view, the experience has been quite frustrating. The Indians and South Africans have been quite assertive and in ways that often don’t seem terribly progressive. I think the Indian position has been—I don’t want to say squarely in Assad’s camp, but they have played a role throughout much of the last year as one of the most strident defenders of Assad’s position, characterizing the conflict very early on as a conflict between two armed parties.

What is striking is that if you go back and look at the early reporting to the Council by the UN Secretariat, where they make quite clear that they saw this as a largely peaceful movement that faced violent, brutal repression from the government in the early stages and then morphed into a movement with armed elements to it, to the point where we are today, where it’s almost an all-out civil war between armed camps. It’s now looking a bit more like the scenario described by the Indians when it hadn’t developed to this point. So I think their position had been not terribly progressive, and was hard to defend. I don’t see a lot of evidence that supported their position in early stages, and now they have certainly changed their position since then. And they have now taken a tougher position on the government than they did in the past. It depends; you have take a sort of snapshot of a certain period of time. Now their positions are more aligned with the West, with the US, with the Arab League, and the Europeans than they had been before. You could also say that about the Russians and the Chinese.

WH: Colum, I want to ask you about Secretaries-General you have known, including the Ban Ki-moon who is starting his second term now and the Ban Ki-moon who arrived here five years ago. Kofi Annan of course. Contrast the two, then anybody before that who you got a good look at.

CL: I think what we are seeing now, with Kofi Annan’s role in the Syria mediation, is that it shows—I really can’t find an example of Ban Ki-moon and his team engaging in this kind of high-stakes diplomacy, in the entire time that he has been here. I mean, something where the whole world is really focused on the UN as being able to either deliver peace or not, and wind up with a result that looks very nasty and ugly.

The interesting thing about it is that Kofi has almost set up an entire parallel machine to negotiate this and mediate this. All the way from the public relations part to bringing in some of his old team; Jean-Marie Guéhenno for example, others who have been involved in his foundation. To me, it looks—I know he’s drawing on UN staff that are providing back-up—but it makes one wonder, has some of the capacity for doing this kind of stuff, has it shifted outside the building, is it now attached to some of these organizations? There is one in Geneva run by Jean-Marie Guéhenno where they are drawing a lot of people from there; there’s Kofi’s non-profit operation. Are these skills leaving the UN to a certain degree?

I think that’s kind of telling. I think also, let me go back to the Arab Spring. One thing that’s been striking over the last year-and-a-half is that you have a Secretary-General who has been criticized a lot for relying too much on quiet diplomacy and for not standing up clearly and taking a clear moral stand on a lot of big issues during his first term—the Burmese military junta and its crackdown on opposition; in Sudan his efforts to develop a close working relationship with President Bashir, who has since then become an indicted war criminal. This willingness to try and develop a close relationship with these very unsavory leaders, he was criticized quite harshly for that.

You can see clearly his role emerging over the last year where he’s been on the bully pulpit, he’s been pushing a much more progressive position. As a result of that, he’s burned his bridges personally with some of these leaders and probably limited his ability to play a mediation role. For good reasons, his relationship with Assad has deteriorated. Basically, he hasn’t spoken to him in several months. He’s taken the position that there’s no point in dealing with him because “every time I talk to him, he lies to me.” You can sympathize with that, but it also raises the question that, it’s easy for us to sit here and we criticize him for one day doing the quiet diplomacy and then the next day when he’s not doing the quiet diplomacy, we criticize him for being irrelevant as a mediator. But that’s part of the trade-off.

So I see in a lot of these issues, I think the UN doesn’t have the opportunity to play the go-between role. I can’t imagine Ban playing any mediation role with Iran. He’s had a very difficult relationship with the Iranian president, scolds him every time he comes to New York, they don’t get on well. He’s probably perceived, rightly, for being much more in the American camp than completely an independent player. I don’t think that’s changed dramatically since his first term.

Kofi had his strengths and weaknesses. One of them, which could be seen as a strength or weakness, the way we’re seeing the mediation play out. One of Kofi’s biggest strengths and weaknesses is the way he reflects the United Nations in all of its strengths and weaknesses. He walks into this mediation and the first thing he thinks about is the only way to get the train going is to make sure that everybody’s on board. So that means making compromises with governments that take positions that one might find unsavory. I think in a way those kind of skills help the whole diplomatic machinery move forward but it involves unsavory compromises and that is something that reflected, I think, his first term and what we are seeing here. You could see two people that are looking at what he’s doing as heroism and total acquiescence to autocrats.

WH: Public information. My time at the UN coincided with the emergence of the oil-for-food scandal and increasing hostility from Washington. The UN always struck me as being very defensive in the way it handled press. Like any bureaucracy, it also harbored a lot of misbehavior which you’ve always been good at exposing. Is it more transparent now than it was then? Is it more accountable? Is it more accepting of prying reporters?

CL: If you are a reporter, you do your reporting and you don’t expect them to help you uncover stuff that they don’t want exposed. That’s fine and fair enough. I find that in a way, Ban is more old-fashioned about the way he deals with the media than Kofi was, and certainly compared to the way Mark Malloch Brown handled the media when he came in as Deputy Secretary-General and developed a whole internal infrastructure for dealing with the media that placed the whole public diplomacy at the center of the diplomacy. I think much more for Ban, the public diplomacy is something that happens after you do the serious work and with Mark it was part of the same thing. They elevated it to a level that hadn’t been the case even in the earlier period under Kofi Annan.

Also, I think the usefulness of the public information from the place has become more distant from what we do. I think under Kofi, there was a lot more information coming back between the press operations than we see now. There’s very little informal exchange of information. I don’t rely particularly heavily on the press operation. I didn’t before, but I did a lot more. I would almost daily have a conversation with Fred Eckhard, who would provide quite useful insights into Kofi’s thinking. I get the sense that—and I don’t know—but I get the sense that Ban’s inner circle, that the press people aren’t a part of that and they don’t really know what’s going on in the way that Fred used to. One good example was that when Ban was under a lot of criticism for his re-election during his trip to China where he had not made any mention of the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo . Somebody had asked the question in a press briefing, “Have you guys spoken directly to Ban over the last couple of days?” and they said no. Maybe that was just communications and they were in Beijing, but if you don’t have somebody that you’re in constant contact with, then it makes it a little less relevant.

WH: I find that a little shocking because in my experience—yours also—you’ve always measured the value of press secretaries or press spokesmen by what kind of access they have to the boss. This is certainly true in the White House. I’m just amazed to hear that anecdote and the fact that they would even admit it, that they hadn’t spoken for two or three days.

A lot of your reporting obviously has to do with what goes on behind the scenes at the UN, but you are really good at reporting on crises and conflicts around the world. How do you manage to do that while you’re based here in New York?

CL: There’s two things. One thing that I used to do, this was really my focus when I worked at The Washington Post, is the one thing that the UN is really good at, it’s like a central clearinghouse for information, for reports, and internal assessments of what’s going on in the field. Essentially what you would try to do is you would try to weave a narrative on the basis of internal documentations. That would be the way, if you were doing corruption stories on Afghanistan, or even recently there were internal assessment reports on the conduct of Sudanese government after the referendum in South Sudan, when there was fighting beginning in South Kordofan. There were really gripping accounts coming out in terms of the treatment of UN peacekeepers by Sudanese security forces in Kadugli. So you can get wonderful narratives out of that about what the relationship is like with the UN and these governments. There was a great account in, I remember, an internal assessment of the government in Ivory Coast’s treatment of the UN in Ivory Coast in the months before Gbagbo was overthrown. You look at this and it’s a great. I wrote it as a how-to on how to completely undermine a UN peacekeeping mission, because it’s very detailed, you know, they would start barricading certain areas, putting up checkpoints, they would systematically target certain peacekeeping units. They would do all sorts of things to basically put the UN into a sort of siege mode mentality and limit their willingness to go out and do their job. You can almost see Assad’s regime looking at a report like this and going, “Hey there’s some good stuff in here.”

WH: As Republicans in Washington look around for ways to save money, the idea of defunding the UN, or at least drastically reducing US contribution, is back on the table. I think you were here for the last go around when Richard Holbrooke, the then-UN US ambassador, succeeded in getting Jesse Helms, the UN’s chief antagonist in Washington, to actually come up here and sit in the Security Council. How is that going now? Do you think it will become an issue in the presidential campaign, defunding or at least limiting funds to the UN?

CL: One of the interesting things about most of the Obama administration—the UN has just not been an issue. I think even on the Republican side, I don’t think they could find a Secretary-General who is more pro-American and Ban’s whole personal narrative is very much more woven into the American story of the last century. Survived on American handouts during the Korean War, the strongest US advocate in the Korean government, supported the Iraq war, supported wholeheartedly the US war on terrorism. I think that has probably insulated the UN from a lot of attacks. Also the fact that the Democrats have controlled both Houses for the first part of his term, and it comes up, but it just doesn’t feel like the stakes are as high as they have been in the past during the Oil-for-Food program.

It’s an issue, it’ll be an issue in the presidential campaign. Certainly, related to Israel. I think if there’s not a lot of forward movement on the Palestinians’ effort to push their statehood drive that it will probably lessen its impact in the debate. I don’t see it at this point as becoming a real hot-button political issue, but on the other side, everyone is going through budget tightening. It’s not just the Americans, so you see countries like France and Britain who are the ones who are yelling at the Americans, “you guys need to cut down this mission in Haiti,” “you need to scale back in Liberia,” “you need to start coming up with an exit plan,” and it’s the Americans who are saying, “Hold on a minute. These are missions we care about and we want to keep funding them.” The pressure is more financial than it is political, and whether the two come together and create a perfect storm, I don’t know. I don’t see it happening yet.

WH: Finally, you may have answered this question already when you talked about the run-up to the war in Iraq and the number of front page stories you wrote, but if you had to, answer this question. What is the greatest story you have covered at the UN?

CL: The big stories are the obvious ones: Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq. But to me, the most interesting stories have been not the big story, but narratives. All of the stories about corruption during the Oil-for-Food program, they were really wonderful stories. There was a terrific story about a UN employee in Congo who was under investigation for corruption, and you looked at his track record and see a story of a guy going from one peacekeeping mission to the next peacekeeping mission to the next one, always being under a cloud and somehow always being able to keep moving around.

There’s a great story about an American peacekeeping official from UNOPS in Afghanistan, the son of a former US diplomat who was overseeing a $1-million-a-day in funding to back the 2004 election. It was a wonderful story of how these people with enormous power, very little oversight, the frontlines of the nation-building venture, and just how you could use this position to import all sorts of exotic, expensive caviars and foods, and just the waste. They are great stories.

There’s a good story in Afghanistan about a former British intelligence official who was doing demining in Afghanistan, and there was an investigation into whether he had set off a bomb under the bed of his Albanian colleague. It was a wonderful experience going through all of the internal documentation. There were feuds inside feuds. There was the UNDP who would conduct an internal investigation which would clear the British guy, and then they would do another outside investigation that that investigation was completely manipulated and fraudulent, and then you’d have a third investigation and no one could agree on anything. And it was the story of this total dysfunction, but it was a great cops-and-robber story throughout the whole thing.

To me, those are what is interesting about the UN is that you can sink your teeth into those kinds of stories, if you have enough time to pore over them. The crime story in Afghanistan with the demining experts took a few months to do that, which is a little harder to do with the blog now.

WH: Colum Lynch, thank you so much for visiting with us in the Global Observatory.