Secretary Scapegoat

June 17, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

Geneva -- Pat Oliphant's cartoon of a Don Quixote on a children's rocking horse, marooned, lance raised, over a sea of African bodies, sums up how many observers perceive the United Nations secretary general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

He has come in for some harsh criticisms of late. Simon Tisdall, the new foreign editor of The Guardian, Britain's best liberal paper, describes him in a sharply worded piece as ''a mandarin without a mandate, a meddler without a method.'' An American cheerleader he never really had, but is he in danger of losing his European constituency, and even his Third World one, this son of Egypt?

Mr. Boutros-Ghali may not yet feel beleaguered but he's obviously stung, as he sits in his splendid office, overlooking the still summer waters of Lake Geneva in the old League of Nations building. ''Where do these criticisms come from?'' he asks. ''Who is behind them?''

All one can say in answer is that these journalists reflect a mood created mainly in Washington -- and to a lesser extent in London and Paris -- by the Clinton administration's baldly selfish attitude, which fobs off difficult decisions on the U.N., then uses it as a public scapegoat when things go wrong.

In Somalia it was not U.N. forces that attacked the Somali warlord, Mohammed Farrah Aidid, provoking the killing of 18 American soldiers. It was the U.S. Quick Reaction Force, acting independently and operating under orders from Special Operations Command in Florida. When American public opinion turned on the Somali operation, the White House blamed the U.N.

The trouble with that ploy is that when you need the U.N. again, as in Rwanda, public opinion cannot understand the new needs or go along with a significant initiative. Why did the U.N. pull out most of its 2,500 soldiers when the bloodletting got under way in Rwanda in April? Because the White House, fearful of the anti-U.N. mood at home, wouldn't give the secretary general the backing to send in reinforcements.

When the fearful Belgians and Bangladeshis pulled their U.N. contingents out, leaving only Ghanaian troops, the secretary general was left high and dry. But it is he who gets blamed for not stopping the carnage that followed.

Is this man better or worse than his predecessors? At 71 he is the oldest to hold the office. But even at six in the evening after a round of meetings on Bosnia, the environment and labor relations, he bristles with energy and concentration.

His predecessors, apart from Dag Hammarskjold, were gray if competent men, who spoke softly and did not take the United Nations in new directions. Mr. Boutros-Ghali is not only opinionated but, like the innovative Hammarskjold, knows that if the U.N. is to survive he must push it to new frontiers.

He relates that when he was in Johannesburg for the Mandela inauguration, he got up early and strode the corridors of his hotel, knocking on the doors of six African presidents to persuade them of the urgency of making troops available for Rwanda. Rwanda, he says, is a terrible failure for both himself and the U.N. -- ''and for the human-rights lobby,'' he adds. ''Why don't they make as much fuss about Rwanda where 500,000 people have been murdered as they do about one dissident in China?''

His particular pride, he says, is the ''Agenda For Peace,'' that he dTC wrote on coming to office. Into it went everything he'd learned as a diplomat, politician and journalist. The document was meant to be a signpost for a new activist U.N. with the financial resources, the commitment of national battalions ready for immediate U.N. service and the political unity to make Security Council policies stick.

Who undermined this ''Agenda?'' Not the secretary general's ''failures,'' I would suggest, but the five permanent members of the Security Council.

Could a European, say the brilliant and well-organized European Union president, Jacques Delors, have done better? Or an American, the informed and politically influential Senator Sam Nunn, for example?

Any secretary general would be overwhelmed by the multitude of chaotic problems that have landed on the U.N.'s plate, by the factions and fictions of the Big Five and the reticence and confusion of the most important member, the United States. The Clinton administration and the Congress must decide what they want. On the eve of the U.N.'s 50th anniversary, shall they make or break it? And when we've finished kicking this secretary general around, what will we do then?

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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