Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the sixth secretary-general of the United Nations, died on February 16th in a hospital near Cairo at the age of 93. Since I covered the UN for the Los Angeles Times during his five-year term, I can add a few nuances to the obituaries that ran in the major newspapers.
There is no doubt that he was denied a second term only because of the animosity between him and Madeleine Albright, the American ambassador to the UN during most of his term and the secretary of state afterwards. He looked on her as thin-skinned, undiplomatic, inexperienced, and bullying. She regarded him as overbearing, arrogant, stubborn, and erratic. A scholar and diplomat for many years, he believed that she felt any criticism of American foreign policy as chastisement of herself. She obviously felt that he failed to show due deference to the demands and requests of the most powerful nation in the world.
Their distaste for each other became obvious to the public in 1995 after U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke cajoled and browbeat the leaders of the combatant governments into signing the Dayton accords that ended the Bosnian war. Humiliated and angered by the American refusal to let him take part in the peace talks, Boutros-Ghali rejected an American proposal that the UN, as part of the peace agreement, supervise the return of a small Serb-controlled area known as Eastern Slavonia to Croatia.
It was a rather minor role for the UN, and the insulted Secretary-General reasoned that NATO, which was implementing the rest of the accords, might as well handle Eastern Slavonia as well. Albright, who thought Boutros-Ghali had already accepted the job, told other members of the Security Council that his refusal was “misguided and counterproductive.” He, in turn, belittled her statement as a vulgarité (the French word, which means common or coarse, is a bit less of an insult than the English word vulgarity). Albright then denounced his comment as “unacceptable.”
By the end of the next year, Albright exacted her triumph. It was a bit of an embarrassment yet very effective. All fourteen other members of the Security Council voted for a second term for Boutros-Ghali. But Albright voted no. Since the US has a veto, that was enough to deny him the second term.
In some ways, Boutros-Ghali was a 19th century intellectual diplomat working in the late 20th century. He had no sense of modern press relations. Joshua Friedman, the UN correspondent for Newsday, once complained that he never once even shook the hand of Boutros-Ghali during his entire term in office.
Yet I spent a good deal of time with the Secretary-General. He scheduled long interviews with me once or twice a year, took me along on trips to Africa and Sarajevo, and was always kind enough to respond when I had an urgent question. I think he found me a good listener to his scholarly analyses of a turbulent world. It was also the heyday of the Los Angeles Times, when the paper encouraged its correspondents to write lengthy pieces, filled with context and history — the kind of articles that appealed to a 19th century diplomat. So he thought, I would guess, that his time with me was spent usefully.
But he refused to acknowledge that he had any problem of press relations overall. When I told him once that the UN press corps in general felt that he was too aloof, too far from them, he said, “That is hitting beneath the belt. Am I aloof with you?”