The Undiplomatic Diplomat: Boutros-Ghali’s U.N. Memoir

Unvanquished: A U.S.-U.N. Saga , by Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Random House, 352 pages, $29.95.

The first impression one gleans from Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s memoir of his days as Secretary General of the United Nations is how much he relished his reputation as a difficult and exasperating man to work with. Mr. Boutros-Ghali notes approvingly that he was seen by others as “imperious,” “arrogant and abrasive,” “unfeeling,” “wary and haughty,” full of “obstinacy,” “not the easiest person to deal with,” partial to a “paternalistic tone,” not being known “for downplaying my abilities” and as having a “deserved” fame for “being hard” on his aides. There is something weird or even psychologically stunted about a world figure who boasts of his own offensive personal characteristics as proof of his leadership qualities.

Despite being a diplomat, Mr. Boutros-Ghali was never really diplomatic. He was seemingly not able to relate on a personal level to other human beings–an odd trait in a Secretary General who is supposed to be able to speak to as well as represent the five billion people of the earth. Mr. Boutros-Ghali’s prickliness was such that even when he did do the good things that he cites in this mostly readable, sometimes self-indulgent memoir (he authored an influential paper, “An Agenda for Peace,” that urges the creation of a United Nations force with rapid reaction capability; he lectured the richer nations of the planet about helping the poorer ones; he insisted that the United States pay its back dues to the United Nations), his statements got derailed by his idiosyncrasies.

In fact, his own U.N. staff cordially detested him–something that was well known when I served at the organization briefly in the mid-1990’s. He was famous for getting rid of high-level aides who, because they had carried out their assignments well, threatened his own prominence. He had a singularly perverse streak that often led him into downright self-destructive acts: For instance, he rejected the proposal to create a U.N. high commissioner for human rights because he said it was a token gesture to “please the nongovernmental organizations”; the Director’s title smacked of “British colonialism”; and the office would “arouse nationalist opposition.” He took this position, knowing “in the end, they would win and I would lose.” It was nutty.

But Mr. Boutros-Ghali’s most intense preoccupation throughout his time at the United Nations was with the American Government–and rightly so, since it was the 800-pound gorilla at the party. His inability to come to terms with the Clinton Administration, with U.S. politics, with the American media and with Congress was legendary. He was never able to press the right buttons, crack the right joke, exhibit the right deftness, invent the right sound bite, or make the right friendships. His two most important (and strangest) allies in America were a duo unlikely to earn him plaudits with the mainstream: New York Times columnist A.M. (Abe) Rosenthal and Representative Charles Rangel. He quotes Mr. Rosenthal and Mr. Rangel a total of 11 times in his text; he reproduces at length their earnest defenses of his U.N. service and their pleas to President Clinton to retain him. Mr. Boutros-Ghali never reveals the nature of his relationship with either man (which could have made for some interesting reading). One does wonder why, given his capacity for such odd friendships, he could never reach out to other power circles in America to expand his base of political and media support.

Mr. Boutros-Ghali’s periodic meetings in New York City with Secretary of State Warren Christopher and the then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, verge on the hilarious. He tells how both officials simultaneously embraced and pummeled him–which he ascribes to their professional insecurities. On a few occasions, Ms. Albright even tried to ban him from traveling to Washington to visit a Congressman. His response was either Uriah Heep obsequiousness or Charles Atlas defiance. Either way, he failed to satisfy. At the same time, he remained eternally clueless as to why the United States wouldn’t pay its back dues to the organization. He occasionally offers his own superficial analyses of America’s moods, such as his dotty suggestion that the “liberal left” used the United Nations simply to “appear to be doing something about a foreign crisis while avoiding direct U.S. involvement.” Hello, Haiti.

He exhibited an almost Olympian disdain and world-weariness toward the antics of most Clintonians. He always knew better. Take the Bosnia crisis: Mr. Boutros-Ghali states that he originally opposed the dispatch of United Nations “peacekeeping” troops to Bosnia because he felt their role was too undefined, but that the Security Council, led by Washington, overruled him. He was thus stuck with a force that, while on the ground, could not fight. Then, he says, he got blamed when the United Nations could neither stop the Serbs from ravaging Bosnia nor prevent the barbaric Serb massacre of Muslims in Srebenica–though he admits that he had the power to call for air strikes and did not. He asserts that it was the “two-faced U.S. policy” of putting U.N. troops on the front lines to avoid risking American lives that did him in. There may be truth to his version of events, but he never explains why, if the American policy was so perilous to the United Nations, he did not rally the membership against it or resign over the issue.

Nothing was ever his fault. He tried to do what he felt was best for the United Nations, and still Washington did not care for his efforts or for the organization. It’s true: The U.S. treatment of the United Nations was indisputably disgraceful, and Mr. Boutros-Ghali was right to criticize it publicly. But he could not fathom why Washington, in its turn, wanted to dump him–except, of course, that Bill Clinton wished to get re-elected in 1996. Mr. Boutros-Ghali was particularly hurt when Senator Robert Dole mispronounced his name during the 1996 Presidential campaign.

In a paroxysm of self-absorption, Mr. Boutros-Ghali devotes the final quarter of his memoir to the story of how the United States prevented him from getting his second term. By turns dull, tendentious and embarrassing, these chapters reprint paeans to him from the Organization of African States; the assurances of world leaders who tell him he’s the best; and Mr. Clinton’s rote rhetorical praise of him during the 50th-anniversary celebration of the United Nations’ founding. Mr. Boutros-Ghali argues that the U.S. action in dropping him was antidemocratic because the Clinton Administration employed its veto to defeat a candidate ostensibly desired by the rest of the body. What he doesn’t say is that Washington used the same tactic that China employed when it blocked Kurt Waldheim’s re-election. He also forgets that the United Nations was built on Realpolitik , not on majority rule. Mr. Boutros-Ghali admits he originally vowed to stay for only one term, but changed his mind.

Mr. Boutros-Ghali delivers some inside gossip and swift glances at recent history. His tale in the end provides a certain voyeuristic pleasure, almost like watching an automobile accident in slow motion. But, over all, he presents himself less like a martyr and more like a chump.