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Getting Rid of Boutros-Ghali

by Stanley Meisler

October 18, 1996

In the 1970s, when Kurt Waldheim was Secretary-General, reporters at the United Nations used to call him The Headwaiter. "He always stood there," recalled Don Shannon, the U.N. correspondent for the Los Angeles Times in those days, "as if he were wringing his hands on a towel, asking what he could do for the powerful countries." That kind of a scene would warm the hearts of American officials these days. Despite all the protests by Secretary of State Warren Christopher and U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright that the United States will veto a second term for Boutros Boutros-Ghali because of his weakness on issues of reform, the truth is that he has failed to serve them well as a headwaiter. The U.S. would like to see another Kurt Waldheim in the job, though, of course, they want a Kurt Waldheim this time without a Nazi past.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the long-time Egyptian professor and diplomat, is probably the most fiercely independent Secretary-General since Dag Hammarskjöld died in 1961. A brilliant analyst, Boutros-Ghali likes to dissect a problem from many angles before reaching a conclusion. But, once he makes up his mind, he acts decisively and holds to his point of view. Much like Hammarskjöld, he looks on himself as a major player on the world scene. He is steeled by an intellectual arrogance that often makes him stand up to the United States when it is politically foolish to do so.

A Coptic Christian who served in an Islamic government for many years, he is a secretive man who does not delegate authority easily. "There is a joke," said an ambassador on the Security Council, "that whenever the Secretary-General wants to look for someone he can trust, he stands up on his two feet, walks across the room to the wall, and looks into the mirror." He does not like to spend much time with the press, and he is a poor communicator in English - his third language - on American television. All in all, he is not the kind of foreign politician that Americans like, and it is no secret that he and Albright have had a succession of spats.

But his problem is compounded by far more than the personal animosity of Ambassador Albright. Both the U.N. and Boutros-Ghali have become a political liability in the United States. First of all, they were used as the scapegoat for the debacle in Somalia. When 18 American Rangers died in an abortive raid in Mogadishu in October 1993, U.S. officials unfairly laid the blame on the U.N. and its Secretary-General. In fact, the Rangers were under the direct command of Major General William F. Garrison, who reported to U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, not the U.N. But the White House did not deem it politically wise to point this out.

The U.N. received unfair blame for Bosnia as well. Throughout the war, U.S. officials continually berated Boutros-Ghali and his man in the former Yugoslavia, Yasushi Akashi, for standing in the way of bombing the Serbs. In fact, Akashi never overruled the decision of his military commander, a French general. The French and British had supplied most of the U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia, and they did not want bombing for fear of retaliation against their soldiers. The Serbs were not bombed seriously for most of the war because the United States could not get its allies to agree. When they finally did agree, the Serbs were bombed. It was too late by then, however, to save the U.N. from humiliation over Bosnia.

To make matters worse, the Clinton Administration devised the strategy of defending the U.N. from a hostile Congress by publicly trying to whip it into shape. Congress would finally appropriate money for the U.N., according to this strategy, if the U.N. reformed. Reform, however, is a phoney issue; no amount of reform will ever satisfy the most hostile members of Congress. They refuse to understand the U.N. and persist in exposing their ignorance by attacking it as an usurper of American sovereignty. The constant belittling of the U.N. as a bloated bureaucracy in dire need of reform hardly enhanced its image.

The image of the U.N. had become so murky at the beginning of this presidential election year that Republican candidate Bob Dole would repeat the name Boutros Boutros-Ghali with such venom and contempt that you might think he was upset most of all by the sound of the name. It is doubtful that Dole's antics succeeded in swinging more than a handful of voters to his side. Nevertheless, the Clinton team saw no point in losing even that handful over a U.N. Secretary-General that they disliked. They announced their intention to veto him.

The arrogant announcement has annoyed many members of the U.N. and generated a good deal of sympathy for Boutros-Ghali. But there is little hope that he can somehow survive an American veto. Under the U.N. Charter, the 15-member Security Council nominates a Secretary-General for approval by the 185-member General Assembly. Some Boutros-Ghali supporters hope that another of the veto-armed Big Five - China, most likely - will veto every other candidate so long as the U.S. vetoes Boutros-Ghali. With the Security Council paralyzed and unable to nominate a new Secretary-General, the General Assembly might then extend Boutros-Ghali's original term for a few more years, without calling it a second term. That happened once before - when the General Assembly extended Trygve Lie's term for three years in 1950.

But it is hard to see China vetoing all other candidates - especially if the Americans succeed in their strategy of persuading the Africans to come up with a new African candidate as soon as Boutros-Ghali is vetoed. That suggestion has tempted some African governments already, and there is a good deal of talk in U.N. corridors about the chances of three Africans - Kofi Annan of Ghana, the undersecretary general in charge of peacekeeping; Olara Otunnu of Uganda, the president of the International Peace Academy; and Ahmed Salim Salim of Tanzania, the secretary-general of the Organization of African Unity.

There would be a great irony if Salim Salim slips in. In 1981, the United States used its veto to force him to withdraw. Salim Salim had infuriated the U.S. by leading a victory dance in the aisles ten years earlier when the General Assembly finally voted to admit Communist China to membership. The American choice in 1981 was Kurt Waldheim, running for a third term. But, fortunately for the U.N., The Headwaiter was vetoed by China.

October 18, 1996
Washington D.C.

Stanley Meisler is the author of Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War and United Nations: The First Fifty Years.

see also:

Obama and the United Nations (pdf)
January 18, 2008

Transparency at Ban Ki-Moon’s United Nations
January 22, 2007

Kofi Annan at the UN: An American Waste
December 4, 2006

Defaming Kofi Annan
September 10, 2006

Bolton and History
March 24, 2005

United Nations in Crisis: The American Challenge
May 7, 2004

Badgering the United Nations
March 2, 2003

Kofi Annan and the Nobel Peace Prize
October 30, 2001

The Revenge of Boutros Boutros-Ghali
July 21, 1999

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