"Unvanquished: A U.S.-U.N. Saga"

Time hasn't healed the former secretary-general's wounds or lessened his bitterness.

By Douglas McGray
July 9, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Boutros Boutros-Ghali wore a pained look on his face. The former secretary-general of the United Nations had weathered five years of bullying from Washington before the Clinton administration finally ousted him in 1996. Last month, at a book signing in Washington, he was once again crying, "Unfair!"

Boutros-Ghali had wanted his new memoir, "Unvanquished," a feisty defense of his stint at the United Nations, to appear simultaneously in English, Arabic and French. But as the 76-year-old diplomat told it that evening, his French publishers had other ideas. "People are going to the beach," they said, balking at a June release. "Heavy books like yours? October." Any delay would be embarrassing: Since leaving the United Nations, he has lived in Paris and run an organization that lobbies on behalf of the French language and French culture. And now the French version of his book would come out four months late? "Our distribution is more important than your problems," the publishers told him. Boutros-Ghali shrugged his slight shoulders at the crowd. But his grimace turned into a smile.

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That wry, self-deprecating humor is one of the pleasant surprises of "Unvanquished," an otherwise bitter account of the United Nations' struggles with a hostile United States. Elected in 1992, Boutros-Ghali enjoyed wide popularity, particularly in poorer parts of the world, for his commitment to reforming a bloated U.N. bureaucracy and for his willingness to stand up to Washington. But the toasts that he earned for resisting the Clinton administration's heavy-handed (and often ham-handed) diplomacy came at a high cost. In an unprecedented move, the United States vetoed Boutros-Ghali's application for a second term in office.

Boutros-Ghali fills his memoir with tales of diplomatic pratfalls. At a dinner for Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, a U.N. protocol officer selected guests for the head table according to unbending rules of international etiquette. A circus ensued. Seated at the queen's right was Fidel Castro, followed by the president of Djibouti; Indonesian dictator Gen. Suharto and his wife; German Chancellor Helmut Kohl; Boutros-Ghali's wife; Zairian strongman Mobutu Sese Seko and his wife; then the secretary-general. Before long, Castro and Kohl were bickering through their translators. (Castro: "You eat too much. You should watch your diet." Kohl: "I hadn't realized, Mr. Castro, that you had become so Americanized that you worry so much about your weight.") It's hard to imagine what the others talked about.

But Boutros-Ghali's breezy tone fails to soften his resentment of Washington's railroading tactics. Almost at once, the fall of Soviet communism, a bloody ethnic war in the Balkans, waves of sickening violence in Rwanda and "Mad Max"-style anarchy in Somalia threatened to blow wide open. With a record 70,000 peacekeepers in the field, the United Nations had never been stretched so thin -- its debt soon reached into the billions. Yet Congress cut off almost all U.S. funding. And members of Clinton's State Department team routinely blasted U.N. bureaucracy for their own bungling and indecision. Not surprisingly, Boutros-Ghali's sharpest jabs are reserved for then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher and U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright. He depicts Christopher as cold and inaccessible. As for Albright, "We had an apparently warm friendship, but warmth turned to fury the instant problems surfaced." He presents her as green and insecure and, above all, a poor diplomat.

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Boutros-Ghali blames misinformation for many of his flaps with the United States. In a bizarre meeting with members of Congress, he was grilled on his hard line toward Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. Isn't it true, a congressman asked, "that you owned a farm in Somalia that was confiscated -- and that is why you are out to get Aidid?" Boutros-Ghali responded with a laugh: "If I ever bought a farm, it wouldn't be in Somalia; it would be in America."

But the real culprit, he argues, was an election-year political climate in the United States that rewarded U.N.-bashing. "Senator Dole was being loudly applauded whenever he declared that, when he became president, American troops would never serve under the command of 'Bootrus, Bootrus-Ghali.'" Congress, meanwhile, was still full of piss and vinegar from the so-called Republican revolution of 1994, which had swept Newt Gingrich and company into power: Not a single Republican member of Congress attended the United Nations' 50th-anniversary bash in San Francisco. The Democrats were hardly better. Albright quipped to New York Times reporter Barbara Crossette that Boutros-Ghali "can't even pronounce United Nations" and began to circulate rumors that the United States "has something on him." Her spokesman, Jamie Rubin, boasted at the Democratic National Convention that "the U.N. can only do what the U.S. lets it do."

Near the end of his term in office, Boutros-Ghali addressed a group of U.N. reporters after returning from a trip. "I'm happy to be back. Frankly, I got bored on vacation. It's much more fun to be back here blocking reform, flying my black helicopters, imposing global taxes and demoralizing my staff." Almost three years after his controversial exit, the critics he skewered are still pounding away at the United Nations.

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Boutros-Ghali, meanwhile, has his hands full with his publishers.


Douglas McGray

Douglas McGray is associate editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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