Unvanquished: A US-UN Saga by Boutros Boutros-Ghali - review by Rosemary Righter

Rosemary Righter

Spoiled by Vendetta

Unvanquished: A US-UN Saga


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‘This book’, Boutros Boutros-Ghali intones in its closing pages, ‘has been about the loss of an opportunity to construct an agreed-upon post-Cold War structure for international peace and security.’ Rarely, even in memoirs, do authors fall quite so foul of the Trades Descriptions Act.

Boutros-Ghali was United Nations Secretary-General from 1992 to 1996; and it is his bitter resentment that he is not still in the job that dominates this acid-laced tirade against the Clinton administration in general, and Madeleine Albright in particular. It is all a good deal more entertaining than most books about the United Nations, and no more self-adulatory than, say, Kurt Waldheim’s repellently vain and duplicitous account of his UN service. There was indeed a bovver-booted clumsiness in the successful White House campaign to deny Boutros-Ghali the second term he believes, wholly unjustifiably, to have been his divine right. More saliently, the Clinton administration’s dishonesty over Somalia, flip-flops over Bosnia, and inability, particularly in that first term, to remember even its better foreign policy ideas for more than a few weeks provide him with plenty of targets. Yet the net effect of this unpleasantly self-obsessed and somewhat self-pitying polemic is to make one increasingly grateful that, from whatever mixture of motives, the US did secure his defenestration from the UN’s 38th floor.

Let me confess: I got Boutros-Ghali wrong not once, but twice. The first time I met him, in 1984 in Cairo, I had just spent weeks in starving, fighting Ethiopia and Somalia; he came, as Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs, to a meeting on the crisis and almost choked us in a bale of verbal cotton wool. I assumed that either he was a well-meaning fool – or, just possibly, that such vacuity was essential camouflage for a French-educated Coptic patrician to survive in Egyptian politics. Either way, when he became UN Secretary-General I expected him to be a clone of his Peruvian predecessor, Javier Peréz de Cuellar, of whom it was unkindly but accurately said that he wouldn’t make waves if he fell out of a boat.

That, in truth, was probably why he was elected – as a ‘safe’ compromise candidate and one who, be it noted, had insisted that at his age (he was in his late sixties) he would definitely not seek more than one five-year term. When he turned out to be a sharp-tongued activist, I was surprised and pleased, even hoping that he might sweep out the encrusted UN stables and produce the innovation and rethinking of its roles that were urgently needed. Again, I was wrong: institutionally, Boutros-Ghali was a disaster, incapable of delegating, secretive and devoid of administrative talent; and it is instructive that while he claims in this book to have been a reformer, he has virtually nothing to say on the subject of reform. His complaint that the Americans should have been satisfied because he had appointed so many Americans to administrative offices confirms that he never got the point.

But bad housekeeping might have been forgiven had he not also been prone to colossal political misjudgements, a trait that was rooted, as this book makes embarrassingly clear, in arrogance. The revealing phrase comes early. Just after he took office, the Security Council held its first ever meeting at the level of heads of state. They asked Boutros-Ghali to make recommendations on improving the UN’s capacity for preventative diplomacy, peacemaking and peacekeeping. An obvious part of the job, you might think, but that is not how he saw it. ‘I was being asked’, he breathlessly confides, ‘to become a political leader’ [and would now] ‘have to confront any member state, large or small, that opposed my exercise of the responsibilities [thus conferred upon me].’ He saw the dangers, but not that he was creating them by these delusions of grandeur.

‘Agenda for Peace’, the paper he produced, had sound ideas about preventative deployment and ambitions to put combat-ready troops on call to the UN, enhancing its deterrent impact by giving it the capacity to respond rapidly to crises. Practice was a different matter. Boutros-Ghali originally opposed sending peacekeepers to Bosnia, later famously accusing Western governments of paying too much attention to a ‘rich man’s war’ and lecturing the besieged Sarajevans that he could give them a list of ten other places in the world that were far worse off. The damage caused by his fumbling micromanagement of the military operation is a matter beyond dispute and his efforts to pin the tail on every other donkey make for some of the least attractive passages in the book.

After the genocide started in Rwanda, the world’s self-styled ‘political leader’ made no complaint at the time when the Security Council, instead of reinforcing the small UN force there, cut it to a skeleton 270 and left the Rwandans to be butchered. He failed to oppose the UN’s premature withdrawal from Cambodia. Only in Somalia, where he is absolutely right that the Americans blundered fatally by refusing to disarm the warlords, were his instincts as bold as the situation required – and his indignation at Clinton’s cowardly attempt to blame the subsequent fiasco on the UN fully justified by the facts.

But this book’s hallmark is not its discussions of policy, or even its flashes of wit, such as the delightful comment that ‘development’ has acquired a trail of slogans, following each other ‘like a row of elephants, trunk to tail’. Everything – including Boutros-Ghali’s greatest strength, his genuine attachment to democracy – is subordinated to his vendetta against the United States. No thrust is too low: what would have been a brilliant assassination job on Albright turns suddenly revolting when he says, in what must have been a conscious echo of Nuremberg, that ‘as the Rwandan genocide continued, she was apparently just following orders’.

And why such venom? Page after page after page provides this single answer: the man who swore he did not want a second term will never forgive Clinton, Warren Christopher and Albright for seeing to it that he was taken at his word. It was a dirty trick, played on him for shoddy domestic political reasons. It was an ‘insult’ to Egypt; to Africa, to which a second term ‘belonged’ on the Buggins’ turn principle; to the UN; to democracy itself. About domestic politics in the States, he has half a point; the rest is fiddlesticks. The greatest help to UN reform would be a single, non-renewable term for the Secretary- General, removing any risk that electoral considerations might influence staff appointments and policy decisions. And that is an argument that, with this book-length whinge, Boutros-Ghali has unintentionally reinforced.

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