UNITED NATIONS -- Where does this guy, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, get off?
Hours before the Security Council approved a no-fly-zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina on Friday, the U.N. secretary-general set Washington's teeth on edge with a letter saying he had decided "not to object" to the well-greased plan.
"It's not for him to object or not to object," a senior official snapped. "It's for him to do what member states tell him to do."
Perched a little smugly at U.N. headquarters in his paneled aerie 38 stories above the East River, Mr. Boutros-Ghali responded with regal patience.
"You have to respect all the points of view," he said in an interview. That includes his own point of view: He has a duty to weigh in with the implications of Security Council actions; in this case, the possibility that Bosnian Serbs, the principal target of the no-fly-zone, could retaliate against U.N. peacekeeping forces on the ground.
The incident speaks volumes about the Boutros-Ghali style: an aristocratic aloofness, even from the five major powers that control the Security Council, coupled with a confident assertion of his prerogative in meeting the massively growing demands on the United Nations.
It also points up some of the tension underlying the United Nations' ongoing transformation from a fairly ineffective debating society to the global problem-solver envisioned in its charter.
As it catapults forward, the United Nations is torn by fundamental questions of control: Who will dominate, the United States and its World War II Allies or all the economic superpowers, including Germany and Japan, whom the Allies vanquished? And in any case, are the great powers willing to subordinate authority to the world body?
Nowhere are these tensions more evident than in the ongoing debate over strengthening the United Nations' capacity to prevent and resolve conflicts.
Responding to a request in January from Security Council leaders, including President Bush, Mr. Boutros-Ghali produced a plan calling for member countries to designate forces that the United Nations could quickly dispatch to world trouble spots.
He envisions these forces being used either in beefed-up peacekeeping operations, capable of halting renewed hostilities after a cease-fire, or in preventing aggression or wars before they start.
Not only would such a rapid response prevent unnecessary bloodshed, he argues, but it would strengthen the hand of diplomats beforehand in ending disputes.
A special cocktail
Right now, he says, he must start "from square one" each time the Security Council decides to dispatch peacekeepers, resulting sometimes in months of preparation as he enlists troops and equipment.
Instead, he envisions "a kind of master plan" spelling out the kinds of forces that would be available to him on a few days' notice: engineers from Country A, for instance; jeeps from Country B, telecommunications equipment from County C. Then, carefully weighing national antagonisms, the secretary-general would be able to choose the appropriate mix of forces to suit each situation -- a "special cocktail," as he puts it.
"It is a question of rapidity, nothing more," he says. "I'm not suggesting a revolution. I'm just suggesting certain practical ideas that will allow me to act in a few weeks rather than . . . a few months."
In places like Bosnia where winter threatens to exacerbate starvation, and Somalia, where time also is essential, it's a persuasive argument.
But in Washington, the proposal is seen as a surrender of U.S. decision-making to the Security Council and of control over U.S. forces to U.N.-designated commanders.
In his September speech to the General Assembly, President Bush pledged a stronger U.S. commitment to peacekeeping operations but stopped short of designating any units.
Having forces effectively under the command of the Security Council "goes beyond where we want to be," a U.S. official says.
The dapper Egyptian secretary-general scoffs at these anxieties.
"My plan is so flexible that if Country A has a certain resistance, they can put at my disposal planes," he says. "It is not necessary that I need a battalion."
If another country's constitution bars sending troops, "O.K., send doctors."
He compares the contemplated use of conflict-prevention forces preventive medicine. "Twenty years ago, no one went to the hospital unless he was on the point of dying," he says. Now it is common to be hospitalized periodically for tests. The presence of such forces would diffuse tension.
The debate over Mr. Boutros-Ghali's "Agenda for Peace" marks a major new political direction for an organization already undergoing dizzying change.
In the past two years, the United Nations has launched the most ambitious projects in its 47-year history: tracking down Iraq's weapons of mass destruction while nurturing its needy; keeping peace in Cambodia while virtually running the country; trying in vain to pacify the former Yugoslavia; and feeding starving Somalis while keeping looters and warlords at bay.