Washington -- WHEN I walked in from the jammed streets of today's chaotic Cairo, Boutros Ghali's office in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry was an island of gilded elegance and old-world quiet. The man himself, with his liquid eyes and his mannered gentility, immediately impressed me as a perfect diplomatic gentleman out of the age of the pharaohs, or perhaps the pashas.
But when we began to talk about Saddam Hussein and the coming conflagration (this interview occurred just before last winter's gulf war), Ghali revealed what an uncommon and modern thinker he is.
"The main mistake of Saddam was that he was not aware of the end of the Cold War," Ghali began. "He is totally unaware that that means not only no confrontation between the superpowers, but cooperation between them."
Last week, in what is surely the most important era in its history, the United Nations chose a new secretary-general. It waded through the special pleadings of Africans and Asians, and it dismissed the United States' desire for a younger man. Finally the Security Council in secret vote chose the 69-year-old Egyptian deputy prime minister with whom I had such a far-reaching interview that day. And from my observations, the United Nations just may have chosen the right man.
What kind of man is this new leader and inspirer of the world's foremost body? In Egypt, he is known by discerning Egyptians as the man who kept building healthy institutions, like those of the Egyptian foreign service, when Egyptian institutions were crumbling under the 1950s and '60s reign of "revolutionary" Gamal Abdel Nasser.
At Camp David with Anwar Sadat in 1978, Ghali differed violently with Sadat and understandingly voiced his concerns -- he feared the accords would be seen as a "separate peace" that was leaving out the Palestinians -- but he was totally loyal once Sadat decided against him. In the darkest days of "Marxist" Ethiopia in the 1970s and '80s, Ghali wisely maintained Egyptian ties to Ethiopia because he believed that Egypt could not afford animosity with the other countries of the Nile River.
But, back to his gilded drawing room, where Ghali the peerless diplomat gave way to Ghali the original intellect.
Saddam was trying to make the war into a confrontation between the rich north and the poor south -- "but that doesn't correspond to reality, because Saddam is himself rich, and it is instead a confrontation between south and south. Saddam insisted he was the only one who could help the Palestinians -- but that is not true -- they can't be helped through military confrontation . . ."
Most striking in the long conversation was the degree to which, even while having great affinity for the struggling Third World, he had bought into none of its fashionable leftish jargon. This may be in part because he is a Coptic Christian married to a Christian daughter of a prominent Jewish Egyptian family in a predominantly Muslim country; such personal complexities teach one to think openly -- or perish.
Indeed, in the weeks just before this interview, he had been speaking, as he often has, to African diplomats meeting in Beijing. "They are pro-Iraqi because they are anti-American," he went on. "The American presence in the gulf represents danger to them. The questions they asked showed only their emotion, without any real rationale. They would say, 'the Americans are in the gulf to defend their interests rather than principle.' "
He smiled again, a slow, languid smile that contrasted with the swiftness of his mind. "Of course," he said, amused. "Everyone is!"
"You see," he said, serious again, "this younger generation still has not been confronted with a good explanation of the end of the Cold War."
Ironically, that is almost exactly what Boutros Ghali, the first U.N. secretary-general of the post-Cold War era, will be called upon by history to do: confront the rest of the world not only with that "good explanation," but with controlling, inspiring and designing the next world.
From my experience with him, and from the clarity of thought evident in his complex history, I foresee him being an original man who does not accept the modish intellectual fantasies of the moment, as a man of quiet, personal courage, and as a man who is ever capable of investigating the supposed impossible.