The Revenge of Boutros Boutros-Ghali

by Stanley Meisler

July 21, 1999

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, has just published Unvanquished: A U.S. - U.N. Saga, his memoir of five years in office, and the account amounts to what the French would call un réglement de compte: his revenge against Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. As U.N. ambassador in 1996, she cast the veto that overrode the affirmative votes of all 14 other members of the Security Council, preventing Boutros from a second term.

The Egyptian diplomat, now 76, has sometimes been accused of ambiguous and involuted pronouncements, but he leaves no doubt about what he thinks of Madeleine. He describes her as a professor and political adviser "of no particular prominence" who came to the U.N. with no diplomatic experience. "She seemed to have little interest in the difficult diplomatic work of persuading her foreign counterparts to go along with the positions of her government," he writes. Instead, he says, she would lecture them or proclaim U.S. policies out of a briefing book, demanding assent rather than discussion.

Although she seemed "shy and very nice" at first, Boutros soon found her rude with an "uncivil tongue." At times she sounds like a harpy in his account. When he refused to go along with her suggestions on the eve of the women's summit in Beijing, she warned him, "The U.S. will remember this conversation." "We had an apparently warm friendship," he insists, "but warmth turned to fury the instant problems surfaced." He portrays her as super sensitive over criticism. "She was admired for her tough talk," he says, "but was offended and outraged when tough talk was directed at her." Arguing with her "was useless." To show her exasperation when he refused to embrace her candidate to run UNICEF, she "threw her head back, rolled her eyes, made a face and slapped her thigh with a loud whack." He calls this "her standard expression of frustration with me."

At the end, Boutros realizes that "her uncivil tongue" did her no harm in Washington. "The more she spoke rudely to other countries' representatives," he writes, "the more political approbation she received from her own countrymen. As I reflected on this, I realized that I was the stupid one. I had foolishly disregarded her increasing political influence in Washington."

The Secretary-General accepts his defeat without grace. "She had carried out her campaign with determination, letting pass no opportunity to demolish my authority and tarnish my image, wearing a friendly smile, and repeating expressions of friendship and admiration," he concludes. "I recalled what a Hindu scholar once said to me: there is no difference between diplomacy and deception."

Boutros is more dispassionate though just as dismissive about U.S. policy toward the U.N. during the Madeleine years. He accuses the Clinton Administration of making him the scapegoat for the Somalia debacle even though the 18 slain American rangers in Mogadishu had operated under U.S., not U.N., command. He deplores the continual American hounding of the U.N. over bombing in Bosnia when the real American quarrel was with French and British generals who opposed it. He blames Washington for preventing the Security Council from dealing with the massacres in Rwanda.

Although the Clinton Administration will surely treat the memoir with contempt, careful readers must not dismiss it. Boutros's portrait of Madeline is very one-sided, but it is a view of her hinted at in other accounts though rarely seen. It may be an accurate portrayal of how she behaved toward him. His analysis of U.S. policy toward the U.N., though self-serving, is sound. Madeleine and the administration, for domestic political gain, did harm the U.N. badly.

But Boutros glosses over some of his own failings. He made himself vulnerable in Bosnia by embracing his military role there with astonishing eagerness. Nothing in his experience equipped Boutros-Ghali or, in fact, any other secretary-general to play at soldiering. The decision to bomb or not bomb should have been left to the U.N. military commander in the field. The commander, a French general, would probably have acted no differently than Boutros and his man on the scene, Yasushi Akashi. But Madeline would have had to throw her brickbats at the French general rather than at Boutros and Akashi. Boutros, however, relished authority too much to delegate it.

It is also obvious that Boutros brandished his independence too glibly. He was right not to give in to Madeleine's admonition that he serve only as a high-class administrative clerk rather than a policymaker. But knowing how their inexperience in foreign affairs made Madeleine and others in the administration super sensitive to criticism, Boutros might have fought fewer battles with them. He also could be exasperating in his conversations with the Americans. When Secretary of State Warren Christopher offered to extend his first term by one year, Boutros replied that he could not make a decision without consulting the President of Egypt. This was an odd and disingenuous reply from an international civil servant who had spent more than four years crying out his independence.

The Secretary-General might have reached some kind of compromise with the Clinton Administration. He says he never intended to complete a full second-term but, as far as can be discerned from the memoir, never informed either Madeleine or Secretary Christopher. When an emissary offered him one year more in office, Boutros refused. "I don't take baksheesh," he said. Yet, he also says he would have accepted two years but never seems to have told Washington. When President Jacques Chirac finally proposed a two-year extension to the Clinton Administration, it was too late. Christopher and Madeleine were so annoyed with Boutros by then that they had withdrawn the offer of even one year.

Boutros and his aides also misread the nature of the opposition. They looked on the administration's threat of a veto as an election ploy that could be circumvented once the campaign ended. Somehow they persuaded themselves that it would be no more than another of those broken American campaign promises. Boutros barnstormed around the world successfully drumming up support for himself. Once the election was over, he assumed, the United States would not want to stand alone against him. Neither he nor his main aides understood the enmity in Washington.

In the end, Madeleine, anointed as the new secretary of state, stood alone and vetoed Boutros-Ghali while the 14 other members of the Security Council voted for him. It was an astounding diplomatic embarrassment for Albright; she had been unable to rally a single ally, not even Britain, to her cause. But she did not seem to care. Getting rid of Boutros was more important.

But the 14 to one vote probably hurt the U.N. even more than it hurt Madeleine. It simply reinforced the conviction of those congressional critics who believed that the United States could count on no one at the unfriendly United Nations.

The Boutros-Madeleine conflict is a sorry episode in U.S.-U.N. relations. A wiser, less combative Secretary-General might have withdrawn - or, at least, accepted the baksheesh of a one-year extension - for the good of the U.N. when he realized he no longer had the confidence of its most important member.

On the other hand, a wiser administration in Washington might have realized that defying the rest of the Security Council on the choice of a Secretary-General only rained another blow on the U.N. after battering it already over Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda. But the Clinton Administration by then was determined to relegate the U.N. to a minor role in American foreign policy. That has irked our European allies and deprived the world of the only meaningful forum where Russia, yearning for some kind of world status once more, could feel that it is being treated as an equal by the United States.

July 21, 1999
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

Getting Rid of Boutros-Ghali
October 18, 1996

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