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Requiem for a U.N. Chief Who Fought Washington — and Lost

Former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who died Tuesday, knew how to joke around with Ali G but lost a war of wills with the Clinton administration.

EGYPT - DECEMBER 17:  Close up Boutros Boutros-Ghali at home in Cairo, Egypt on December 17, 1991.  (Photo by Jean-Michel TURPIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
EGYPT - DECEMBER 17: Close up Boutros Boutros-Ghali at home in Cairo, Egypt on December 17, 1991. (Photo by Jean-Michel TURPIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a shrewd and prickly Egyptian diplomat who led the United Nations through some of its greatest tragedies in Rwanda and Bosnia but saw his diplomatic career brutally cut short by the Clinton administration, has died at the age of 93.

As Egypt’s foreign minister, Boutros-Ghali forged close relations with the United States after playing a pivotal role in the 1979 landmark peace deal struck by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. But more than a decade later as the U.N. chief, Boutros-Ghali frequently clashed with the Clinton administration over matters ranging from Washington’s chronically late payments of its U.N. dues to the use of force in the Bosnian war.

Boutros-Ghali’s strained relationship with former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine K. Albright — he once referred disdainfully to her as a professor “of no particular prominence” — would prove fatal to his career. She led a U.S.-driven campaign in 1996 to deny him a second term in office, despite overwhelming support from the U.N.’s wider membership. Albright went on to become then-President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state while Boutros-Ghali was resigned to relative obscurity as the secretary general of La Francophonie, an organization of French-speaking nations. He penned a defiant and embittered memoir, Unvanquished, denouncing his treatment by Washington.

In many ways, Boutros-Ghali was among the most intellectual and independent-minded of the U.N.’s leaders. He wrote the “Agenda For Peace,” a highly ambitious blueprint for a post-Cold War world that was turning increasingly to the United Nations to end some of the world’s most intractable conflicts. But his boldest proposal — a call for a standing U.N. rapid reaction force that could be called into action on a moment’s notice — never saw the light of day.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “deeply saddened” by news of Boutros-Ghali’s passing.

“He…presided over a time when the world increasingly turned to the United Nations for solutions to its problems,” Ban said, noting the massive expansion of U.N. peacekeeping under his tenure. “Boutros Boutros-Ghali did much to shape the organization’s response to this new era…. He showed courage in posing difficult questions to the member states, and rightly insisting on the independence of his office and of the [U.N.] secretariat as a whole.”

Boutros-Ghali began his term as secretary-general in January 1992, a time of great optimism among American and foreign leaders about the role the United Nations could play in resolving international disputes now that the Cold War had ended.

Boutros-Ghali’s predecessor, Javier Perez de Cuellar, had earlier proven the U.N.’s worth by playing a helpful role in ending the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. U.S. President George H.W. Bush saw the U.N. as a valuable partner, and led a U.N.-backed coalition to repel former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

The Clinton administration came into office embracing a policy of “assertive multilateralism” that also placed the U.N. at the center of American efforts to resolve crises through international cooperation and burden-sharing.

But the honeymoon was short-lived.

The deaths of 18 U.S. special forces in a raid on the Mogadishu headquarters of Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid changed the Clinton administration’s attitude toward intervention in far-flung missions beyond America’s vital national interests. It also cooled U.S. enthusiasm for ambitious U.N. peacekeeping operations.

Although the U.N. played no role in that so-called 1993 Black Hawk Down operation, the Clinton administration sharply faulted it for the international failings in Somalia.

Three years later, during a U.S. presidential campaign season, Republican nominee Bob Dole used the botched Somalia mission to criticize the Clinton administration for placing U.S. troops under the command of U.N peacekeepers. Dole, who ultimately lost the 1996 election, also found that pronouncing Boutros-Ghali’s name in a mocking tone of voice became a reliable applause line on the campaign trail.

Boutros-Ghali lacked the political instincts to navigate Washington’s growing hostility towards the U.N. But the final issue to seal his fate was a deal he negotiated that effectively gave him authority to authorize, or block, NATO airstrikes that sought to prevent Bosnian Serbs from shelling Sarajevo and other Bosnian Muslim towns in the early 1990s.

The United Nations ran a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia that became a symbol of international impotence, as Serb forces shelled civilians and engaged in a brutal campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the country’s Muslim population. The U.N. blue helmets were empowered only to secure humanitarian aid convoys and had orders to avoid battling the Serb forces laying siege to the capital Sarajevo and other towns across the former Yugoslav republic.

When he visited Sarajevo in 1993 to appeal for more peace negotiations, Boutros-Ghali was jeered by crowds and ridiculed by the leaders of Bosnia’s embattled government. One protester held up a sign as Boutros-Ghali took a tour of the shell-ravaged city: “May God protect you the way you protected us.”

Boutros-Ghali resented repeated U.S. calls to bomb Bosnian Serbs when U.N. peacekeepers would have to bear the burden of reprisals. But he came under sharp criticism for his opposition to taking military action to protect civilians from Serb forces and at one point called the conflict a “rich man’s war” that distracted from larger-scale suffering in Somalia. He pressed for a U.N. Security Council resolution in 1993 insisting on neutrality for the U.N. peacekeepers in the conflict, and he later clashed with the French commander of the U.N. forces in the former Yugoslavia, Gen. Jean Cot, who had pressed for more air power to help clear the way for humanitarian aid.

After the fall of the U.N. “safe area” of Srebrenica in July 1995, where Bosnian Serb forces overran Dutch peacekeepers and then executed and ambushed more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys, the former Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki resigned his position as the U.N. human rights rapporteur. In a letter to Boutros-Ghali, he wrote that he could no longer “continue to participate in the pretense of the protection of human rights.”

Boutros-Ghali appeared to revel in the fact that he was not always popular among the U.N.’s diplomatic or even his own staff. In his memoir, he took a certain pride in his reputation as an “imperious” and often “arrogant” taskmaster. But he was also admired for his keen intellect and wicked sense of humor.

He once consented to be interviewed by the faux reporter Ali G, played by the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who introduced Boutros-Ghali as the “geezer” who leads the United Nations. Boutros-Ghali took it in stride, patiently explaining why Disneyland is not a country deserving of U.N. membership, and conceding that the world’s funniest language may be Arabic, while gamely fulfilling a request to translate the word for human excrement into French.

Photo Credit: Jean-Michel Turpin/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

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

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