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Boutros-Ghali Bites Back

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By Ian Williams

A Review of Unvanquished: A US-UN Saga
by Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Published by Random House

The Nation
June 14, 1999 Edition


In this memoir of his tenure as UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros Ghali describes how President Clinton responded to media pressure to do "something" about Bosnia. This "seemed to be air strikes, which would punish the Serbs provide the United States and NATO with the appearance of decisiveness without risking unacceptable military losses on the ground." One can see the seeds of the current war in this tactic of lethal inefficacy predicated on a widely advertised refusal to put in US ground troops.

It wasn't just the Americans Boutros-Ghali was right about. His description oft the Serbian "three-step tactic" in Bosnia also uncannily describes the game that Slobodan Milosevic is still playing with the world. The Serbs, he says, "would seize territory and inflict horrors upon the civilian population." The United States would threaten intervention, the Serbs would halt the advance and the West would stop considering action. Then the Serbs would demand concessions in return for stopping and prepare for the next three-step move. The man derided for being anti-Bosnian declares, regarding the massacre at Srebrenica, that "nothing can excuse the atavistic cruelty of the Serbs; the incompetence of the international community in no way diminishes their guilt."

Unvanquished reveals an underlying consistency in US foreign policy begun under Bush and brought to full fruition under Clinton: Always take the easy out, which is whatever way plays best at home. As he portrays US diplomacy as consistently inept and ineffectual, Boutros-Ghali concludes, "Diplomacy is perceived by an imperial power as a waste of time and prestige and a sign of weakness."

Boutros-Ghali's big failure was that he was not a Uriah Heep. Indeed, the adjective most often used about him was "arrogant," which is Washington-speak for foreigners who are too clever by half, and flunted rather than being ostentatiously 'umble. Compared with the ignorance in Washington, he had much to be arrogant about.

As soon as he took office he offered, without groveling, to put that cleverness at the disposal of the United States, which was too stupid to avail itself of the offer. He told Secretary of State Warren Christopher and the UN ambassador Madeleine Albright that he knew he and the UN had to have US support to survive but requested politely, "Please allow me from time to time to differ publicly from US policy." Far from seeing the obvious advantages in this, it "appeared to shock them." And ever after, they did indeed react to any disagreement, public or private, as if he were a thought criminal.

Boutros-Ghali's other problem was that the policy the Clintonites wanted him to follow so slavishly was one of the most closely guarded secrets in Washington, probably beyond reach even of the Chinese intelligence services. Was it the belligerent public statements of Albright? Was it the cryptic mutterings of Christopher? The gleanings from the latest focus groups by the White House or a sample-of-one phone poll of Dick Morris by the President? Above all, because they so often changed their minds after sponsoring a UN resolution, why couldn't he jump through the same hoops? They foisted presidential appointees on him and then made him take the rap when they failed at their allotted tasks. They would insist that UN operations be set up, would interfere and would then point the finger when their interference caused them to fail, and again expect him to take the rap.

While Boutros-Ghali has a powerful intellect and a superb grasp of international affairs, he was not made for a career in human resources. When he arrived he started a breakneck reform program. It would have been better if he had spent some more time familiarizing himself with the organization. As it was, he alienated most of the staff --not just the "bloated, slack and out of touch." Equally annoyed was the press, which he ignored or snubbed, and even many diplomats, over whose heads he went to speak to his former colleagues in the capitals. It would have taken only minimal stroking to keep most of these constituencies happy. Luckily, by the time he had begun to use his considerable charm on them, he was given a big boost by the singularly vicious and personal campaign that the White House and Albright waged against him. If he had taken the time to explain his motives and his reasoning as well as he has in this book, he might have won more support sooner.

Whatever deference Boutros-Ghali once expressed or felt for the United States has certainly evaporated. Looking back over his five years in office, he concludes, "When the United Nations was allowed to do its job without substantial US involvement, as in Mozambique, the operation succeeded. When the United States felt a political need for the United Nations, as in Haiti, the operation also fulfilled its main objective. But when the United States wanted to appear actively involved while in reality avoiding hard decisions, as in Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda, the United Nations was misused, abused or blamed by the United States and the operations failed, tragically and horribly."

Boutros-Ghali does not attempt to gloss over the failures of the UN under his tenure, of which he concedes that Bosnia is the outstanding example. Not only did the war almost bankrupt the UN financially and politically, it also fatally eroded what he calls the "the key principles of international behavior: no acquisition of territory by force; no genocide; and guarantees of the integrity and existence of UN member states." However, he remains loyal to his appointee, Yasushi Akashi, whose incompetence while head of UN operations in Bosnia passed the boundary into complicity by the time it came to Srebrenica in 1995.

From the beginning of the Bosnia operation, Boutros-Ghali did warn of the coming debacle, and when he now accuses the Security Council of "using phrases and making demands that it knows cannot be implemented, in order to please public opinion," it is only the ascribed motivation that is novel. In fact, this was only half true. Some members of the Council, like New Zealand and Venezuela, did not have the Secretary-General's fatalism about governments' policies. They tried to shape public opinion and put pressure on the United States, Britain and France to act. The result, unfortunately, was more often exactly what Boutros-Ghali described -- the three would issue statements and resolutions designed to palliate public opinion rather than deal with the reality. As he says, they "were using the United Nations as a substitute for making their own hard decisions and allocating adequate resources."

Although there were many eyebrows raised at him as the "African" candidate for the position, there is no doubt that he took it seriously, and one of the reasons for his frustration over the Bosnia operation was that it took attention away from Africa. He told Sarajevans at the height of the siege that "you have a situation that is better than ten other places in the world.... I can give you a list." What he was saying was true but extremely untactful. He glosses this to mean that the Bosnians had friends and world attention, that they were not alone. In fact, he was frustrated at the contrast with Northern indifference to Africa, in particular.

However, when he did get the UN involved in Africa, in Somalia, it proved as disastrous as Bosnia -- and for the same reasons. Domestic focus groups are no way to plan a military operation. His plea to US troops to disarm the militias was ignored, and the White House has never forgiven the UN for his correctness. As it was, the UN took the blame for a freelance Delta Force operation directed by the United States, about which the UN commander on the ground was not even informed. The Malaysian and Pakistani troops who fought their way through to rescue US Rangers in that disastrous mission are still awaiting thanks from Washington. And relatives of the thousand or so Somali men, women and children killed in the effort to arrest the "warlord" Mohammed Farah Aidid are still waiting for an inquiry or recognition.

In the end, Clinton announced that US forces would be doubled and put under US command (as if they had not been all along), while in reality he was preparing to withdraw. His Washington chorus told a compliant US press that the debacle was a result of the UN's obsessive feud with Aidid -- forgetting that the United States itself had originally called for it. The United States then skewed the terms of the inquiry into Aidid, excluding consideration of the killing of the US troops, because it decide that he was the local Milosevic, a man with whom the United States could do business (which, as always, meant the avoidance of risk of casualties to US forces).

They never got Aidid, either as perpetrator or interlocutor. However, we did get Presidential Decision Directive 25, which decreed that there would be no UN peacekeeping operations anywhere, anytime, unless it was in the US national interest. "If the American people are to say yes to peacekeeping, the United Nations must know when to say no," said the President whose emissaries had voted for, indeed pushed for, every one of the operations that he was now decrying.

This unilateral declaration of isolationism was just in time for the slaughter in Rwanda, which, from the beginning Boutros-Ghali correctly diagnosed as genocide. His words, however, fell on the deaf hears of Albright's crew, which had bee stuffed with PDD 25 lest they succumb to the siren song of assertive multilateralism. It was not the beginning, but it was certainly a highly representative sample of the type of diplomacy that has led to the Russian and Chinese veto threats of recent weeks.

In the absence of UN forces in Rwanda, Paris stepped in, and with cautious candor Boutros-Ghali admits that "some observers claimed that the French were using area of operation to provide a refuge for France's Hutu friends who had launched genocide." Indeed they were, but the, but the French are only marginally more culpable than United States, which effectively blocked any reinforcement of the UN forces already there. Incidentally, Boutros-Ghali claims that he did not learn about a cable reporting Hutu weapons stockpiling, sent by Romeo Dallaire, the UN force commander in Rwanda, until three years later.

Kosovo is foreshadowed in so many ways in this account. For example, the much-overlooked precedent for disregarding Serbian "sovereignty" is Haiti. The only "threat to international peace and security" from the military regime was that the Haitians who fled to Florida threatened Clinton's electoral prospects in a swing state. The genuine sufferings of the Haitians provided a welcome excuse to stop it. Even there, though, in 1993 the most Clintonian of all incidents showed that no threat was too small to make the White House wobble. The USS Harlan County steamed to Port-au-Prince with contingents to bolster the UN force, only to turn away when faced with a dockside claque of junta demonstrators. Those were almost certainly led by people on the CIA payroll, since, as Boutros-Ghali points out, that famously competent agency was working in direct opposition to the State Department.

Soon the State Department would be working hard against Boutros-Ghali. His nemesis first appears on page 67 of Unvanquished. Introduced by former President Jimmy Carter as "a heavyweight in every respect" and shortly afterward described by Boutros-Ghali as "short and plump" with " sharp blue eyes," Albright soon fell out with him. He described her as seeming "to have little interest in the difficult diplomatic work of persuading her foreign counterparts to go along with the positions of her government, preferring to lecture or speak in declarative sentences, or simply to read verbatim from her briefing books. She seemed to assume that her mere assertion of a U.S. policy should be sufficient to achieve the support of other nations." He later realized that though this be madness, yet there was method in't. "The more s spoke rudely to other countries' representatives, the more political approbation she received from her own countrymen."

The White House attempt to micromanage Boutros-Ghali was not only wrong but gross misuse of a potential asset. It seemed to delight in sending messages not just via junior aides, which would have been discourteous enough, but also by public megaphone. The most famous case was when Boutros-Ghali offered Yitzhak Rabin help after the 1994 Hebron massacre and got a reply from James Rubin, Albright' spokesman, who rushed to the press to denounce the temerity of offering UN peacekeepers. Boutros-Ghali's quip about sending a message to Rabin but getting a reply from Rubin did not go down well.

Unvanquished lacks the vituperation that one might expect from someone who had been hounded the way the UN Secretary-General was. His prose is spare convincing. He is ambivalently tolerant of Jimmy Carter (who, like Jesse Jackson, has sucked up to many of the tyrants of time, with touching faith in the efficacy of prayer for recidivist mass murderers). Perhaps most interesting is the lack of animus against his successor. For example, Boutros-Ghali forbears to mention the claim that Kofi Annan sat on the critical cable from Rwanda, and in the interval between the proofs and the final version of this book – I read both -- he has dropped an interesting paragraph about Israel's bloody shelling of Qana, Lebanon, in 1996. In the run-up to that year's Israeli election, Boutros-Ghali insisted that a full report issued blaming the Israeli Army for killing more than 100 civilian refugees in the Quana UN encampment. Annan reportedly asked, "Why humiliate Israel even further?" whereupon Boutros-Ghali angrily said "'if this is your view, then there is something rotten in your department.' Annan commented softly, 'There is something rotten in the UN.'" It was an issue over which Boutros-Ghali was rightly incensed. In neither draft does he record the cutting riposte he gave the Israeli ambassador, who had pleaded with him that issuing the report would open deep wounds in Israeli society that Israeli shells had opened even deeper wounds in the refugees at Qana.

Some of this narrative is inside baseball for diplomats, but there are many insights that deserve an airing. Describing the effects of sanctions, Boutros-Ghali says, "The innocent population suffers greatly, but the oppressive regime feels little or nothing, while the process only deepens its control over the people," as he describes his long wrestling with both the Americans and the Iraqis to get the oil-for-food deal off the ground. Sometimes he contrives to be right, but ends up wrong. For example, he opposed the appointment of a High Commissioner for Human Rights partly because of the colonial redolence the title but also because "I remained convinced ... that no one would be able to make such a position into anything more than one more bureaucratic layer." The first incumbent in the job lived down to his suspicions but since Mary Robinson has been appointed, she has disproved his thesis.

Overshadowed by the wars and the battle with the White House are the six major conferences on women, the environment, social development and so on that took place under his tenure. But even then, Boutros-Ghali can be acidic. The development of the UN, he suggests with stinging accuracy, "tended to substitute new slogans for new ideas. 'Development' became 'human development' and then 'sustainable human development,' as labels attached themselves like a row of elephants, trunk to tail." But for the first time those conferences allowed nongovernmental organizations a role in the formulation of global standards.

So what happened? Boutros-Ghali was the victim of a triangulation and a personal vendetta. Even candidate Bob Dole, who admitted he knew better, invoked the doubly stressed BOUTros BOUTros-Ghali in pandering to the paranoid right, who thought the UN had a fleet of black helicopters ready to take over the United States. Since there is no proposition too ridiculous for Clinton to co-opt once it has been invoked by the right and seems to poll well, Boutros-Ghali had to go. He had been told in April 1996 that the United States would oppose him and abided by the request not to publicize the issue before the election -- until, of course, the Clintonites came out attacking and remarked how dangerous he was when he fought back. As he points out, the Administration put considerably more effort into sacking him than into arresting the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, an indicted war criminal.

Madeleine Albright was in charge of the "get Boutros" campaign, and she up the challenge with relish. In doing so, she achieved perhaps her sole unmitigated diplomatic triumph: She united the world against her and the United States and in support of Boutros-Ghali. Although he does not speculate on motives or even on casual chains that he cannot verify, there are many reasons: He rebuffed Albright's instructions and approaches several times, making her look ineffectual with "her President." And she is not one to forgive and forget.

And the saga continues. Now in his third year of office, Kofi Annan waits in vain for the billion and a half dollars in back dues that the White House said could not be paid while Boutros-Ghali was in office. Annan takes initiatives on Iraq and has the State Department destabilization team on his case immediately. Despite his notoriously even temperament, perhaps Annan's memoir will tell a similar tale of perfidy and bullying. In the meantime, Boutros-Ghali's book will see us through the missed opportunities and almost criminnal inadequacies of US diplomacy in the last decade of the millennium.



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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.