UNITED NATIONS — The meeting of veteran foreign policy experts in a Manhattan apartment one recent Sunday was held in strict secrecy. The guest of honor arrived without his usual retinue of aides.
The mission, in the words of one participant, was clear: "to save Kofi and rescue the U.N."
At the gathering, Secretary-General Kofi Annan listened quietly to 3 1/2 hours of bluntly worded counsel from a group united in its personal regard for him and support for the United Nations. The group's concern was that lapses in his leadership during the past two years had eclipsed the accomplishments of his first term in office and were threatening to undermine the two years remaining in his final term. They began by arguing that Annan had to refresh his top management team, and today he will announce that Mark Malloch Brown, 51, the widely respected head of the U.N. Development Program, will become Annan's chief of staff, replacing Iqbal Riza, who announced his retirement on Dec. 22.
Their larger argument, according to participants, addressed two broad needs. First, they said, Annan had to repair relations with Washington, where the Bush administration and many in Congress thought he and the United Nations had worked actively against President Bush's re-election. Second, he had to restore his relationship with his own bureaucracy, where many workers said privately that his office protected high-level officials accused of misconduct.
In the week after the session, Annan sought and obtained a meeting with Condoleezza Rice, the nominee for secretary of state. U.N. officials said afterward that it was an encouraging meeting.
The apartment gathering on Dec. 5 came at the end of a year that Annan has described as the organization's "annus horribilis." The United Nations faced charges of corruption in the oil-for-food program in Iraq, evidence that blue-helmeted peacekeepers in Congo had run prostitution rings and raped women and teenage girls, and formal motions of no confidence in the organization's senior management from staff unions.
Just days before the gathering, Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who is head of a subcommittee investigating the oil-for-food program, had brought criticism of the United Nations to a boil by calling for Annan's resignation.
The meeting also occurred at a moment when the United Nations faces major institutional challenges: the Jan. 30 vote in Iraq that U.N. electoral experts helped set up; the preliminary report late this month of the oil-for-food inquiry led by Paul A. Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman; and, now, the Asian tsunami, which is testing the organization's capacity for coordinating assistance on a global scale.
The meeting was held in the apartment of Richard C. Holbrooke, a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton.
"The intention was to keep it confidential," Holbrooke said. "No one wanted to give the impression of a group of outsiders, all of them Americans, dictating what to do to a secretary-general."
In a telephone interview on Sunday, Annan said he felt the session had been "supportive and helpful," but he said it was just one of many such meetings he had been holding.