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Unflappable, Impeccable, Seemingly Untouchable

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Reviewed by James Mann
Sunday, February 10, 2008

CHASING THE FLAME

Sergio Vieira de Mello and The Fight to Save the World

By Samantha Power

Penguin Press. 622 pp. $32.95

In hotspot after hotspot over the past 30 years, the face of the United Nations was Sergio Vieira de Mello. U.N. secretaries-general, no matter how much they travel, are of necessity tied to New York, running a huge bureaucracy. But the lower-ranking Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian who became a career U.N. official, spent most of his life on the ground in the world's worst hellholes.

His resum¿ looked like a survey of international instability: He worked in Lebanon, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan and Afghanistan. He was in Bosnia at the peak of Serbian atrocities. He served as the U.N.'s viceroy in Kosovo, running relief efforts and government services after the 1999 war. Then he moved to East Timor, where he directed the country's transition to independence. Perhaps inevitably, when Secretary General Kofi Annan was looking for someone to lead U.N. operations in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, he turned to his most trusted hand, his special envoy for chaos and disaster. When Vieira de Mello was killed in Baghdad in a 2003 truck bombing, the United Nations lost the most courageous and charismatic diplomat in a generation -- a man who yearned to solve the world's crises and who kept a flak jacket on the coat rack in his New York office.

In Chasing the Flame, Samantha Power set out not merely to write a biography of Vieira de Mello, but also to glean from his life some larger lessons. The underlying questions are profound ones: how the international community should cope with ethnic unrest, civil wars and genocide; how much power the world's governments should give to the United Nations; how much difference one person can make. Her book is an ambitious effort, a long, meandering narrative that in the end succeeds brilliantly but is so slow-paced, especially in its early pages, as to leave the reader wishing Vieira de Mello would grow up, move on or find some epiphany amid the serial catastrophes.

Power, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, won a Pulitzer Prize for her previous book, " A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide. She is also a foreign-policy adviser to Barack Obama and a likely candidate for some high-level position in an Obama administration, so her writing provides clues to the positions she might espouse once in government. In the course of examining Vieira de Mello's views, she sets out her own: In severe crises, mere humanitarian missions are not enough; the international community must be prepared to use force to keep the peace. "Security is the first priority, and the second priority, and the third priority, and the fourth priority," she quotes Vieira de Mello as saying. Power does not want the United States to be the world's policeman, but she does think there should be a tough cop out there, a multilateral one -- preferably a transformed and strengthened United Nations that has far greater support from the United States and other leading powers than it does today.

This book, like her earlier one, grew out of Power's experience as a correspondent in Bosnia, where she met Vieira de Mello in 1994. A fellow journalist had described him as "a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy." Power was charmed and intrigued. But her depiction of Vieira de Mello, while sympathetic, is not mere hagiography. His flaws are explored in some detail. One of his conceits, early in his career, was the idea that, as part of his U.N. job, he should avoid moral judgments and develop productive relationships even with some of the world's nastiest thugs. He visited Khmer Rouge leaders in Cambodia. He talked to the Taliban. As a favor, he delivered a copy of the New York Review of Books to the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic; his efforts at neutrality in Bosnia earned him the caustic nickname "Serbio." Power does not seek to explain away this behavior. "He seemed more interested in being liked and in maintaining access than in standing up for those who were suffering," she writes. She argues that Vieira de Mello changed his views later in life -- that, in the mid-1990s, the massacres in Bosnia and Rwanda chastened and transformed him. Perhaps so, but this is the one part of the book where one wishes for more detailed evidence than she provides.

She also depicts Vieira de Mello as a careerist and a womanizer. He clearly hoped, for a time, to be U.N. secretary general, although, given his distaste for bureaucracy and his preference for work in the field, he was lucky it never happened. Though married, he seemed to find a new woman in each place, or to bring one with him. "Come with me to Cambodia, I need a special assistant," he told a Dutch woman with whom he'd been having a romance in Geneva. She went; the affair ended soon after he left the assignment.

The strength of the book lies in Power's use of Vieira de Mello's life (and death) as a well-placed window on the international community's successes and failures. There have been several other good books about the United Nations, but they are told from the perspective of New York. Power looks at the U.N. from the field.

From Kosovo, where he headed a U.N. mission that went behind Serbian lines in the midst of the NATO bombing campaign, Vieira de Mello secretly carried out notes, film and videotape that eventually led to the prosecution of Balkan war crimes. There and elsewhere, Power says, he was "unflappable, impeccable and seemingly untouchable while the shells rained down around him." Yet Vieira de Mello gradually saw the limits of what he was doing. Humanitarian work was not just about food, water and shelter but also about protecting civilians from thugs. Sometimes the U.N.'s efforts were weak because the world's leading powers didn't want to do what would be effective. The classic example was Bosnia, although Vieira de Mello learned the lesson only retrospectively. "Instead of using the Security Council to establish and enforce a new global order," Power writes, "the major powers sent lightly armed peacekeepers into harm's way simply to monitor the carnage." Vieira de Mello also found that the U.N. bureaucracy could be deadening. In the most eloquent sentence in the book, Power concludes that the U.N. "had a knack for 'killing the flame' -- the flame of idealism that motivated many to strive to combat injustice and that inspired the vulnerable to believe that help would soon come."

Power's style as a writer is to accumulate detail after detail. Occasionally, this distracts from her larger themes; one learns far too much about Vieira de Mello's courtship habits, office politics, his colleagues' travel plans, even the dumb jingles they wrote in his honor. In the final section on Iraq, however, that same layering of detail makes for a chilling account of the Aug. 19, 2003, suicide attack on the U.N. mission that took the lives of Vieira de Mello and 22 others. On CNN, she writes, "Wolf Blitzer turned to the camera and told his viewers that it was their turn to weigh in on the story. 'Our Web question of the day is: Is Iraq becoming a quagmire for the U.S.? We'll have results later in this broadcast.' "

Vieira de Mello eventually figured out how to work the U.N. and bend its rules, but he also discovered that, in Power's words, "there was only so much one U.N. civil servant could do." The United Nations couldn't function well unless its member governments, particularly the major powers, let it change -- and to do that, they had to change themselves. "He was deeply worried that the system he had joined thirty-four years before was not up to the task of dealing with the barbarism and lawlessness of the times," she writes. "Twentieth-century rules were no match for twenty-first-century crises." *

James Mann, the author of "Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet," is author in residence at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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