U.N.'s Man on the Spot

January 06, 1993

Boutros Boutros-Ghali was jeered in Sarajevo for opposing military action against the Serbian invasion. The United Nations secretary-general was stoned in Mogadishu by Somali supporters of a warlord for allegedly favoring a rival. He was threatened in Addis Ababa by Ethiopian demonstrators opposing his planned visit to secessionist Eritrea. And it was all meant to be a goodwill trip.

Mr. Boutros-Ghali has angered the United States for publicly assigning it missions in Somalia it renounces. He accused British diplomats of racist prejudice against himself. He has outraged the French and the Arabs. His brusque manner and plans to pare the U.N. bureaucracy have brought muttering in the ranks and resignations by the U.N.'s top negotiator and its emissary in Somalia. He must be doing something right.

Mr. Boutros-Ghali is the diplomat-politician-scholar who did Egypt's negotiating in the Camp David accords. As a minority Coptic Christian (a sect harassed by Muslim fundamentalists), married to a woman of Italian Jewish ancestry, he faced a glass ceiling in Egyptian public life. A year ago, he took the U.N. job, committed to serve one five-year term. His sudden eminence as the first activist U.N. secretary-general since Dag Hammarskjold the 1950s is less a function of personality change than of changes in the U.N. Suddenly, it is the vehicle of choice for solving problems. It is falling into a new role as benign colonial ministry for countries unable to handle independence. The key decision-maker is the Security Council, and the secretary-general is meant to carry out its will.

Yet he speaks his mind and that is his trouble. His "Agenda for Peace" last summer called for a standing U.N. army ready for fast deployment. Under U.S. and other opposition he retreated to seek a reserve of national forces including U.S. airlift elements. The U.S. does not agree in principle, but provided it in Somalia. The Boutros plan called for pre-emptive U.N. observers in place before violence breaks out. They are in Macedonia today.

After years when nothing was expected of the United Nations, now much is. Mr. Boutros-Ghali and his 10,000 subordinates are servants of 179 member states, which are $1.5 billion behind in paying for them. But it is one member, the United States, which really counts, and which is $410 million behind in payments.

If President-elect Clinton finds the U.N. useful he must give it tools to do the job. That means orderly payments and clear expectations. The issue is not Mr. Boutros-Ghali's vision for the U.N., but Mr. Clinton's. The person who can make that a reality is Mr. Boutros-Ghali. A meeting of their minds is what the U.N. needs. Along the way, the outspoken U.N. figurehead might find it useful to regain the diplomatic tact he formerly exercised.

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