The Overstretched Superpower
Does America Have More Rivals Than It Can Handle?
‘I wondered if the train I was on was that of the United Nations or the League of Nations,’ said Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a former prime minister of Poland, when he resigned in protest in 1995 from his assignment as the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in the former Yugoslavia. ‘I want to make the leaders of the United Nations think,’ declared the decent man who walked away from the spin and the complacency and evasions of the United Nations’ Bosnia policy. Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s essay proves that the world body and its leader have yet to face up to what they have wrought in Bosnia (‘Global Leadership After the Cold War,’ March/April 1996).
Readers of Boutros-Ghali’s piece will, of course, have understood its purpose. It is the clearest statement yet of his bid for a second term as secretary-general, the rationale for his quiet but relentless campaign, which has been in the works for some time. (The secretary-general, born in 1922, had said that because of his age, one term would suffice, but that was the promise of his first term.) As a campaign statement, his piece is remarkably transparent, even embarrassingly honest. Begone the restraints of the faceless international civil service, and begone those acronyms of international organizations. The pronoun ‘I’ appears 24 times in the essay. All is well in the realm. The books have been balanced, the organization ‘streamlined’ and ‘rationalized.’ The international conferences held during his tenure have been ‘new and different’; they have been ‘cumulative’; they have been ‘linked.’ U.N. peacekeeping has been exemplary. Boutros-Ghali has endured slings and arrows and has at times suffered as the scapegoat for the failures of member states, but he has labored on for the causes of an international civil service and an independent secretary-general.
One will look in vain for a single reference to Bosnia. (There is a passing reference to war crimes tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda.) Bosnia was never permitted to break into last year’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations and all the self-congratulations that went with it. And Bosnia is not to break into Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s narrative of his years at the world organization’s helm.
AN INCONVENIENT TRAGEDY
The truth of the United Nations’ role in Bosnia cannot be wished away. Bosnia clings to this secretary-general. Read between the lines in his piece, and Bosnia rises like an apparition: ‘Lives lost in one place seem to matter more than lives lost in another. War in one country may get enormous attention, while war elsewhere may be virtually ignored. Violations of the rights of one people arouse far more concern than violations of the rights of another.’ All along, the Bosnians and their cause were a great irritation to this secretary-general. The Bosnians refused to do him the favor of a quiet surrender. Grant Boutros-Ghali the virtue of consistency: from the time he dismissed Bosnia as a ‘rich people’s war,’ compared with the ‘orphan conflicts’ he cares so much about, he showed the Bosnians a steady measure of indifference. They stood in the way of his stewardship of the world body, of the new, exalted language he had begun to peddle about a world outgrowing the nation-state and the rules of the Westphalian system.
The secretary-general uttered more revealing words in his memorable visit to Sarajevo on December 31, 1992. This time no handlers or blue books were present to extol the virtues of his leadership, to sanitize his words and sentiments. ‘You have a situation which is better than ten other places all over the world. I can give you a list of ten places where you have more problems than in Sarajevo,’ the secretary-general told the people of the besieged city. The wrath and the outrage with which he was greeted on the streets of Sarajevo ought to have shaken his complacency. But while the horrors of Srebrenica continued unabated, the secretary-general pressed on with a scheduled visit to Africa. Astonishing the reporters with him who thought the ordeal of that U.N. ‘safe haven’ was a more pressing concern, he said Srebrenica was but a ‘village in Europe.’ The secretary-general has a broader mandate; other causes and other burning grounds lay claim to his attention, particularly the orphan conflicts that are his special domain. The Africa tour was a campaign swing, the misery of Africa held up as a counter to the Balkans’ horrors.
The moral indifference and callousness of the secretary-general was contagious. He passed it down the line to his representatives on the scene, to the commanders of his peacekeeping forces. That complacency was the signature of Yasushi Akashi, his special representative to the former Yugoslavia until October 1995, who baffled even the most jaded observers with his reluctance to give name to the horrors around him, to draw distinctions between the aggressors and their victims. And this same obtuseness shaped the discourse of U.N. commanders Major General Lewis W. MacKenzie and Lieutenant General Sir Michael Rose. These two men, in particular, did all they could to foster the view that the Bosnian conflict was an ethnic brawl among three equally dreaded parties. For MacKenzie, the Serbs, the Croats, and the Bosnians were ‘three serial killers,’ distinguished only by the number of murders each had committed. For Rose, the Bosnian Muslims were tricksters who shelled their own people, cowards trying to get the United Nations to fight their fight. These men and their legacies are part of what the secretary-general did and sanctioned in Bosnia.
WITHOUT A COMPASS
Boutros-Ghali’s and the United Nations’ record in Bosnia was given a devastating assessment by David Rieff in The New Republic (February 12, 1996). There, with great clarity, is an autopsy of what was done and what was dodged in Bosnia. Boutros-Ghali provided cover for the great powers and their abdication of responsibility. He railed against them -- the French, the British, the Americans -- when he felt that they had been unfair to him, that he had been left twisting in the wind, that he had been provided with insufficient muscle to fulfill his mandate. Everyone knows that the United Nations commands no military divisions. But in Bosnia this secretary-general forfeited the organization’s principal asset: its moral standing to speak out on the great issues of the day. Boutros-Ghali never could find his compass in Bosnia, and his failure went hand in hand with pretensions about the dawn of a new age for the United Nations. Leadership in the aftermath of the Cold War indeed.
The secretary-general’s words take one’s breath away: ‘I am like a doctor. I diagnose the patient and make certain recommendations for his cure. But if he does not follow my advice, it is hardly my fault.’ Can we afford five more years of the same doctor and the same cure?
Fouad Ajami is Majid Khadduri Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University.