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Should you judge a U.N. book by its cover?

By Colum Lynch Last week, I reviewed the diplomatic memoir of Kai Eide, a veteran Norwegian diplomat who served as the U.N.’s top envoy in Afghanistan from February 2008 to March 2010. The book is chock full of dramatic nuggets: near escapes from suicide attackers, secret talks with the Taliban, and private battles with Richard ...


By Colum Lynch

Last week, I reviewed the diplomatic memoir of Kai Eide, a veteran Norwegian diplomat who served as the U.N.’s top envoy in Afghanistan from February 2008 to March 2010.

The book is chock full of dramatic nuggets: near escapes from suicide attackers, secret talks with the Taliban, and private battles with Richard Holbrooke, who opened his first meeting with the newly minted Norwegian envoy with the question, "When does your contract expire?"

But its title, Power Struggle Over Afghanistan, is enough to put off even the most ardent followers of Afghanistan’s recent political history.

Books with riveting titles, like Steve Coll‘s Ghost Wars, Peter Bergen‘s The Longest War or Ahmed Rashid‘s Pakistan on the Brink, have fed a market for insights from a region that has bedeviled foreign powers for centuries.

But how can the U.N. be heard in a crowd of such dramatic titles?

Not with a title like this: Afghanistan’s Troubled Transition: Politics, Peacekeeping, and the 2004 Presidential Election.

Now here’s a book title that screams "don’t read me," unless, that is, you work in the U.N. "lessons learned" department or you’re pursuing a Ph.D in international elections. The price tag, $69, is also a sign that this volume is destined for libraries and classrooms.

Which is a shame, really.

Because it is likely one of the best book you can find that explains why Afghanistan — after receiving billions of dollars of Western aid — has been wholly incapable of establishing durable local institutions that could keep the country together after the U.S. and its military allies leave. The book, written by Scott Steward Smith, a former American aide to Eide, details the real-world compromises that U.N. officials, under pressure from the Afghan president and the United States, make that undermine long-term efforts toward development. It names names, offering a sober critique of decisions by U.S., U.N., and Afghan players, from Karzai to American envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to a host of U.N. envoys, including Lakhdar Brahimi.

But both books are something of an exception.

In fact, U.N. officials rarely write books, and certainly not books that are worth reading, because candid revelation of bureaucratic bungling or big power cock-ups can harm a career.

Some of the most readable accounts of life in the field by U.N. envoys — including Alvaro De Soto, a Peruvian national who wrote a withering critique of the U.N.’s Middle East policy, or Charles Petrie, the French U.N. resident coordinator in Burma from 2002 to 2007 — were buried in classified end-of-mission reports, written for the benefit of the secretary general and a handful of other U.N. insiders. "From Burma‘s remote jungle capital of Naypyidaw, the image of life that emerges in official reports for the government‘s military rulers appears sunny," I wrote in a piece for the Washington Post describing Petrie’s report. "Economic growth in Burma has reached about 13 percent annually over the past five years, they say. Literacy is also soaring, with more than 96 percent of citizens able to read and write."

Petrie was ultimately kicked out of Burma by the regime he had mocked, but he survived in the U.N. system by restricting his thoughts to private reports, although they didn’t remain public for long.

Eide, who just turned 63 and is headed toward retirement, has little to fear from bureaucratic retaliation.

Smith, a promising electoral expert, resigned his post at the U.N. around the time his book was published.

If history has anything to teach, he was probably wise to do so.

One of the catchiest titles to emerge from the U.N.’s rank and file, Emergency Sex and other Desperate Measures, told the story of three young U.N. humanitarian relief workers struggling to do good in the world, while sometimes misbehaving.

One of the authors had already left the organization, placing them beyond the reach of the censors. But another, Andrew Thomson, a doctor from New Zealand, was pretty much driven out of the organization — though he was later reinstated and promoted after the intervention of a whistleblower organization. But the U.N. brass viewed the effort as an act of disloyalty and the book as excessively sensational.

The threat of going against the firm has led to a dearth of memorable U.N. diplomatic memoirs in the years since Brian Urquhart wrote, a Life At Peace and War, a classic autobiography of the former World War II veteran’s life as a paratrooper, intelligence officer, and later as a Nazi hunter, before his storied career that placed him at the center of the U.N.’s invention of peacekeeping.

But the books with good titles are generally written by U.N. officials who have left the organization: Backstabbing for Beginners, a memoir by Michael Soussan, of his life working on the Oil for Food program, and Shake Hands with the Devil, an account of Gen. Romeo Dallaire‘s failure to secure official approval to confront Rwanda’s mass killers during the country’s 1994 genocide.

Still, U.N. officials quietly continue to pen books, mostly for think tanks and university imprints, including The Procedure of the UN Security Council, by Sydney D. Bailey and Sam Daws, a 689-page reference guide to anything you want to know about the security council’s activities, Global Governance and the UN: An Unifinished Journey, by Thomas Weis and Ramesh Thakur.

But some of the most readable books are hidden behind bland titles.

The UN Secretariat: A Brief History (1945-2006), a slim volume published in 2006 by the International Peace Academy, now known as the International Peace Institute, was written by Thant Myint-U and Amy Scott. The book  provides a serviceable history of the U.N. Secretariat with lots of juicy tidbits, like Kurt Waldheim‘s costly renovation of his headquarters — out with Dag Hammarskjold‘s stylish Scandinavian furniture and in with the seventies wood-paneling and leather couches — and efforts to secure a posh residence for himself overlooking Central Park. (He eventually had to settle for a posh Georgian-style townhouse on the East River, leased for free from the United Nations Association).

Than Myint-U, a former U.N. official and grandson of U-Thant, has gone on to write well received books about Burma, including one with this poetic title: The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma.

But of course you shouldn’t judge a book by its title.

A few years back, I received a review copy of Edward C.  Luck‘s Mixed Messages: American Politics and International Organization, 1919-1999.

Dismissing it as another dull think-tank production I dumped it in the wastepaper basket to make room on my bookshelf.

A few years later, reporting a story on the rise of the Tea Party and U.N. bashing throughout American history, I ran across some excerpts of the book online.

I immediately ordered a copy of the book from Amazon. It remains, by far, the best book on the subject.

Luckily, with a title like that, there were plenty of copies available.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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