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A U.S.–U.N. Saga

By Boutros Boutros-Ghali
Random House. 384 pp. $29.95

  Chapter One

Chapter One: American Support: Loss After Gain

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As the end of my five-year term as UN secretary-general approached, some friends, colleagues, and UN member states asked me to seek a second term. In their view I had strengthened the independence of the secretary-general's job and performed it well. All previous secretaries-general had served two consecutive terms; if I did not do so, it would be a slight to my country, Egypt, and to my continent, Africa. I agreed. And to be honest, my own pride and sense of achievement drove me to want a second term. There was a risk, however: 1996 was an American presidential election year. Only once every two decades did a UN and a U.S. presidential election fall in the same year. I knew that the UN decision might get caught in American politics. It did.

In January 1996 I was invited to give a lecture at Oxford University. Two of my predecessors had lectured there, Dag Hammarskjold in 1961 and Javier Pérez de Cuéllar in 1986. Both had spoken about the role of the secretary-general. So did I, though my world had changed dramatically from theirs. My lecture stressed the importance of an independent secretary-general, as envisioned by the UN Charter, and the urgent need to find new ways to finance UN operations, since the United States refused to pay its contribution.

My words angered the White House and Congress. Staff aides and spokesmen for both parties noted that I had been far too independent over the past five years. My suggestion that a modest levy on international airfares might be used to finance UN expenses was denounced in the Senate as an attempt to impose taxes on American citizens in defiance of the U.S. Constitution. Although I was merely repeating an idea first put forward by Pérez de Cuéllar and backed by me five years before, the UN Information Office in Washington used the word "firestorm" in describing Washington's reaction to my Oxford lecture. Forty-some members of Congress from both sides of the aisle signed a letter criticizing me.

In mid-February 1996, at a reception I was giving at the secretary-general's residence on Sutton Place in New York City, I asked to have a word with two friends, former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and David Hamburg, president of the Carnegie Corporation. I wanted their advice. Should I say publicly that I would be a candidate for a second term as secretary-general? Or should I avoid the issue and be "undecided" during the American presidential campaign?

Cy replied that the two events—the U.S. and UN elections—should be kept as separate as possible in the minds of the public. I was then being regularly derided and attacked by Senator Bob Dole, the leading Republican candidate for president. His mocking pronunciation of my name—Boo-trus, Boo-trus—sounded like a jeering crowd, and his claim that American troops served under my "command" invariably aroused his audiences. Candidates on the right were telling Americans that the United Nations was a global conspiracy to rob them of their sovereignty and that "black helicopters" belonging to the United Nations had been overflying the Rocky Mountain states in preparation for a UN takeover of the country. So, Cy said, perhaps I should declare my candidacy now, early in 1996, well before the American political conventions of midsummer. I was not so sure. I was afraid that an announcement would only stimulate U.S. opposition to my reelection. I asked Cy and David to inquire quietly on my behalf.

Soon afterwards the quarterly journal Foreign Affairs carried a version of my Oxford lecture, in which I stressed that an independent secretary-general was essential to the United Nations' credibility. Editorials interpreted my publication of this article as a deliberate provocation of the United States. My article was said to be a thinly veiled declaration of my intention to stand for a second term.

Not in Favor

Then at 8:00 on Sunday evening, April 14, Vance and Hamburg came to see me. Cy appeared deeply embarrassed and uncertain how to begin. He took a small piece of paper out of his pocket and read a message to me from Secretary of State Warren Christopher: "The administration has decided not in favor of your reelection."

I told Cy and David that I was surprised by this message, but I would not change my mind even if the United States vetoed me. "I have strong expressions of support from Africa, Latin America, Russia, France, and China," I said. I asked Vance and Hamburg to keep Christopher's awkwardly worded message and my reaction in confidence, for if it got out, I would not be able to work normally at the United Nations, and there was a lot to do in the months ahead. I asked Cy and David to tell Christopher that I intended to remain quietly "undecided" about my future throughout the American presidential campaign. Although I would declare myself after November 5 for a full five-year second term, I wanted to assure the administration that I would step down before the end of the second term, when my work, primarily reform of the UN Secretariat, was placed on a solid footing.

Eight days later Christopher telephoned me from Jerusalem, I was surprised that he regarded the issue of my reelection as important enough to interrupt his Middle East schedule to call me. He spoke circuitously, apparently concerned that his call might be monitored. Nonetheless, I understood him to confirm that the Clinton administration had decided "not in favor" of me. I replied so that anyone who happened to be listening would understand: "I am a candidate for reelection, despite the opposition of the U.S." On May 3, 1996, The Wall Street Journal carried a one-paragraph item entitled "Bye-Bye Boutros," stating that the administration had decided to get rid of me as secretary-general, no doubt an official leak. The United States had already gone into action. Jean Daniel, editor of Le Nouvel Observateur, told me that the United States had asked Spain's prime minister, Felipe González, to become a candidate. "No," González had replied, "there is a good secretary-general now."

Early in the morning of Monday, May 13, Warren Christopher came, at his request, to see me. We sat in the Great Room, which ran the length of the secretary-general's residence in New York City. There was a fire-place at each end, one carved with the heads of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, and the other, where we sat, displaying the likenesses of Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton. As always, I was impressed with Christopher's impeccable tailoring and recalled that, at the UN fiftieth anniversary gathering in San Francisco, my wife, Leia, had asked him where he had his suits made. Christopher had named a Savile Row tailor, Chester Barrie. The majordomo brought pastries and coffee in the Middle Eastern style. My guest ate heartily but seemed abashed and defensive. He said he had come to confirm what he had said on the telephone from Jerusalem, that the Clinton administration had decided that I should not continue as secretary-general. "Why?" I asked.

Christopher said he could not answer my question, "because of our friendship." I said, "Come on, Chris, as a friend you owe me an answer. It's important for me," I continued, "to understand what mistakes I have made and what I have done to provoke this." The first priority of a secretary-general, I said, has to be the relationship between the United States and the United Nations. "America is the only superpower," I said, "and this means that the U.S. dislikes the very idea of multilateralism." There always are strains and differences between the United States and the United Nations. "That is just normal," I said, "so what I have done to cause this abnormal U.S. decision?"

Christopher repeated that he could not tell me the reason. "You are an outstanding lawyer," I said. "Why not defend my case to President Clinton?" Christopher attempted a smile. "I am the president's lawyer," he said, "not your lawyer." I mentioned the many Americans I had appointed to UN jobs at Washington's request over the objections of other UN member states. I had done so, I said, because I wanted American support to succeed in my job. Christopher made no reply.

As he was leaving, I asked him to step into the library, which overlooked a lawn and the East River with its morning traffic of barges and tugboats. I gave him a book, The Portraits of Fayoum: Faces from Ancient Egypt. At the end of the pharaonic period in ancient Egypt the covers of sarcophagi were painted with the portraits in life of the persons mummified inside. A "portrait of Fayoum" had been discovered at an oasis near Cairo, marvelously preserved. I had wanted to possess one of these beautiful artifacts, I told Christopher, but because of the expense, I could only prize them through books, such as the one I wished to present to the secretary of state on this occasion. Christopher seemed pleased and interested in the book. Then, turning serious once more, he insisted that our talk be kept confidential and asked me not to reveal my intention to stand for reelection. I readily agreed, for publicity would damage my effectiveness in office. Because the press would be aware of our meeting, we agreed on parting to say that we had discussed the UN financial crisis.

Though Christopher refused to tell me why the United States had decided that I must go, I knew that the reason was to be found in the political dynamics of the 1996 American presidential campaign combined with the remarkable events of the previous five years.

The Politics of an International Election

My UN adventure had begun almost five years earlier, when a moment's conversation changed my life. In May 1991, as we flew over the Mediterranean from Cairo to Paris, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak told me he was going to promote me to vice-prime minister for foreign affairs. "And, Boutros, since you love to work, I will also give you the post of minister of emigration, a ministry which needs to be gotten under control." The ministry for emigration was responsible for more than 3 million Egyptian émigrés in the Arab world, Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States.

As Mubarak's new vice-prime minister, I was entrusted with special diplomatic missions. While representing him at the June 1991 summit of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Abuja, Nigeria, the post of UN secretary-general was raised in a closed meeting of leaders, for it was "Africa's turn" to select someone for the job. Candidates from Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe were mentioned.

"There is not a single French speaker on this list," President Omar Bongo of Gabon said. Someone else added, "They all come from West Africa." Then President Bongo confronted me: "Boutros, why don't you present yourself? You speak Arabic, French, and English; you would be an excellent secretary-general of the United Nations." I had known these leaders for fifteen years or more. I had created a special fund for cooperation in Africa with a budget of millions of Egyptian pounds under my direction, which enabled me to send hundreds of Egyptian experts to African countries each year and bring hundreds of Africans to Egypt for training. Despite the relatively modest fund, it was popular and helped explain the sudden decision of African leaders to think of me for the top UN position.

I had written the first book about the United Nations to appear in Arabic. When I was a young visiting professor at Columbia University in 1954, I had wanted to work at the United Nations. At one time I had hoped to head UNESCO in Paris. And in recent years I had thought about the post of UN secretary-general. I had had no such desire during the cold war, when the United Nations had been pushed aside by the superpowers. But now there was a real role to play and a chance to put into effect ideas I had been working on for years.

I told President Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria, the president of the summit, that I was honored but that President Mubarak would have to agree. The African presidents replied almost in unison that they would get Mubarak's approval.

When I told President Mubarak what had happened at Abuja and that I was interested, he was not enthusiastic. "If you fail, it will be a defeat for Egypt," he said.

"Mr. President," I said, "there are elections. One may be elected, just as one may not be elected. When I stood for election to Parliament, though a member of your cabinet, I took a risk; I might have failed." I had already discussed my chances with Egypt's new minister of foreign affairs and with the president's advisers. They all said that my election would be marvelous for Egypt, but that it would not be easy. President Mubarak remained reluctant; he had just promoted me, and now I wanted to leave. But on June 16, 1991, he finally agreed. In one short month my career had taken a radical and unexpected turn.

Electing a UN secretary-general had often been an agonizing and embittering experience. And recently commentators on the United Nations have deplored the lack of a specific set of standards for choosing a secretary-general. It is ridiculous, even disgraceful, they say, to select "the world's top diplomat" for "the world's most impossible job" in such an unstructured, chaotic manner. Instead, they have proposed drawing up criteria for candidates, who would then be screened by committee, rather like choosing a Rhodes scholar or a college president. Aristotle, in his Politics, supports this position, saying that "it is improper that the person to be elected should canvass for the office; the worthiest should be appointed, whether he chooses or not."

But this would make the United Nations into just another international bureaucracy. The drafters of the UN Charter left the matter to be shaped largely by changing international needs, stipulating only that "the secretary-general shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council." The rest is left to the messy business of politics.

The office of secretary-general is, by design, weak yet pivotal. The incumbent has no financial base and no substantial say over what goes on throughout most of the UN system. Yet in a world organization whose member states differ vastly in wealth, power, and size, the secretary-general often serves as the fulcrum for cooperative progress. But all comes down to politics, again and again.

I looked forward to campaigning for the job as a wonderful adventure. I cited Aristotle against himself. He did not say "Man is the appointed animal"; he said, "Man is the political animal." And I recognized that political animal in myself. In planning my campaign, I recognized three necessities: the backing of my own country, acceptability as the representative of my region or continent, and familiarity with the problems and leaders of every part of the world. I would have to make my case politically to gain the support of key countries, regions, groups, and international networks, not only to win office but also to be effective in the job.

France's backing would be necessary. Paris was determined that the United Nations continue to give French its proper role as the traditional language of diplomacy. I had gained Egypt's entrance into Francophonie, the worldwide association of nations sharing French language and culture, and I had personal ties to President François Mitterrand. Beyond France, I needed support from the other permanent members of the Security Council: Britain, China, Russia, and, most important, the United States.

I asked Ambassador Joseph Verner Reed, the elegant, extravagantly gracious, and talented former State Department chief of protocol, whose ironical view of the world I had long enjoyed, to speak to President Bush on my behalf. In Cairo in July I met Secretary of State James Baker and found him friendly but focused on non-African candidates. In addition to these rivals, there was another African competitor for the UN job besides me. This was Bernard Chidzero, Zimbabwe's senior economic minister, who had experience in the UN system and who was backed by the Commonwealth and Great Britain. Chidzero addressed me in French to show that he too spoke the language of Moliére. I knew him well enough to tease him: "If you want the approval of France, you must not only speak French, but speak English with a French accent."

George Bush Drops In

Back in Cairo, President Mubarak handed me a letter that I was to hand-deliver to President George Bush. But in Paris on September 10 at the Quai d'Orsay, I was told in confidence that the U.S. State Department opposed my candidacy.

On September 13 I went to the White House to see National Security Adviser General Brent Scowcroft. By prearrangement, President Bush stopped in to say hello. If I had gone to the Oval Office, Bush would also have had to receive other candidates there publicly, Scowcroft said. Tall and strong-looking, Bush was impressive, a far more imposing figure in person than he seemed on television or in newspaper photographs. He was far more interested in the situation in the Middle East—Muammar Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein—than in Mubarak's letter about my candidacy.

On Capitol Hill the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Claiborne Pell, told me he favored the candidacy of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, a son of the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims and a former UN high commissioner for refugees. The writer Arnaud de Borchgrave, an old friend, told me, "The White House has already decided on Sadruddin Aga Khan." Outside the developing world, few seemed to know that it was "Africa's turn."

After this brief American visit, I went to Canada as minister of emigration, a role I had almost forgotten, to meet members of the Egyptian diaspora. In Ottawa I called on Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who listened to me talk about my UN hopes without comment.

I soon learned why. Mulroney had been President Bush's first choice to become UN secretary-general, but the White House had learned that support for Mulroney would offend Africa and the third world, which did not want anyone from the wealthy, industrialized "North." Bush had then shifted to Sadruddin Aga Khan, who he thought would be acceptable to the developing countries.

On the same trip I visited the editor of The New York Times, A. M. Rosenthal, who asked bluntly, "Do you want to be secretary-general?" "Of course," I replied, "that's why I have come to see you." "At last!" Rosenthal exclaimed. "Someone who is honest about what he wants!"

In late September 1991, I accompanied President Mubarak on an official visit to Moscow, which was in turmoil following the August collapse of the Soviet Union. Mubarak told me that when he met Mikhail Gorbachev tête-à-tête, it was the Soviet leader who mentioned my name first and said that he would firmly support me. I had a long-established relationship with Moscow and had worked to restore Egyptian-Soviet ties after President Anwar Sadat broke with the USSR in 1979. I was president of the Egypt-USSR Friendship Society, a position I had sought precisely because I was pro-American and did not want the job to go to someone who might undermine U.S. policy in the Middle East. Gorbachev later told me that after we left Moscow, Prime Minister John Major of Great Britain called to propose Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Norwegian prime minister, for the UN job. "We have already committed ourselves to Egypt," Gorbachev replied.

A Letter from Friends

Back in Cairo, I telephoned the American ambassador, Frank Wisner, to tell him of Moscow's support so that he could pass the word to the State Department. I was picking up commitments, but I did not know how to deal with Washington. Ambassador Roy Atherton organized Ambassadors Lucius Battle, Hermann Eilts, and Nicholas Veliotes—all of whom had served in Cairo—to write a letter to President Bush. Wisner too would have signed had he not been barred from doing so as an active member of the U.S. administration, Atherton told me. "In our judgment," the four ambassadors wrote, "Dr. Boutros-Ghali has the stature, breadth of experience, international respect and recognition, intellectual vigor and creativity, and diplomatic skills required to lead the institutions of the United Nations in the years ahead." Reed delivered the letter to Bush by hand. Reed told me later that Bush's favorable opinion of Sadruddin Aga Khan was not shared by Baker, who had not liked Sadruddin's handling of the UN humanitarian program for Iraq and Kuwait at the time of the Gulf War. Baker supported Hans van den Broek, the former Dutch foreign minister. In October at the General Assembly session in New York, Reed had a sharp discussion with Baker when Reed told him that the next secretary-general would have to come from Africa. By this time, Bernard Chidzero and I were running neck and neck; all other African candidates had been effectively eliminated.

On Thursday morning, November 20, at the Hôtel Crillon in Paris, I met the American assistant secretary for international organizations, John Bolton. He was "at odds," I had been told, with Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, apparently feeling that Pérez de Cuéllar had been insufficiently attentive to American interests. I assured Bolton of my own serious regard for U.S. policy. "Without American support," I said, "the United Nations would be paralyzed." Not long after our meeting Bolton made a strong statement before the Congress, declaring that "UN peacekeeping remains one of the best bargains there is with respect to the maintenance of world peace." Obviously, Bolton told the Congress, "the amounts which the world spends on UN peacekeeping are only the minutest fraction of what the world spends on armaments."

Later that day, still in Paris, Abdel Raouf Al-Ridy, Egypt's ambassador to Washington, told me that Baker was ready to support me. Could this be true?

I had flown to Bonn to ask German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher to help me get U.S. backing. The decisive vote might be taken at the United Nations in New York that same evening, but I was exhausted and fell asleep. At midnight, I was awakened by a noise at the door and a victory cry: "We won! We won!"

The next morning I telephoned my wife, Leia, and President Mubarak. Cairo was jubilant, they said. Crowds of people were in the streets congratulating one another. Klaxons were blowing all over the city, as if Egypt had won the World Cup in soccer. For the first time an Arab had been elected to a major international office! I telephoned President Mitterrand to thank him and called on Foreign Minister Genscher. "I knew that you would win," he said. "I always bet the winning horse." That afternoon in Germany I received President Bush's congratulations. Later I was told that Bush and Baker had failed to agree on a candidate and so had given the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Thomas Pickering, no definite instructions. The United States had abstained in the vote that elected me the sixth secretary-general of the United Nations.

My investiture took place in New York on December 3. I took my oath in Arabic and gave my speech in three languages, Arabic, English, and French. I cited the medieval Islamic philosopher al-Farabi, who had dreamed of "the virtuous city." The greatest dream of all, I said, would be a virtuous association of nations, and I hoped the United Nations would fulfill this vision. I set out themes that would characterize my five years in office: peace and the need for diplomacy to prevent conflict; development to narrow the gap between North and South; reform to prepare the United Nations for the post-cold war world; and democratization not only within states but also among the states of the international system.

By chance President Nelson Mandela of South Africa was in New York, and his presence gave a special symbolic value to the inauguration of the first secretary-general from Africa.

On Tuesday, December 5, in Washington, I had warm meetings with Baker, Scowcroft, Lawrence Eagleburger, and Bolton, all of whom were far more familiar than I with the intricate mechanisms of the United Nations. President Bush received me in the Oval Office, where I stressed my commitment to reforming the UN Secretariat. Emerging from the White House, I avoided the press corps and went to a hospital to see Moussa Sabry, an Egyptian editorialist and former confidant of President Sadat. With his usual lively expression and curious intelligence, Moussa Sabry wanted to know every detail of what had happened. Together we had gone through many difficult times. He was dying of cancer, and I knew I was losing a colleague and dear friend.

Returning to Egypt, I submitted my resignation as vice-premier and minister, as member of Parliament and the National Democratic Party, as president of the Society of African Studies, as president of the Egypt-USSR Friendship Society, and as editor in chief of Siassa Dawlya (International Politics), a review I had founded years before.

In my last parliamentary meeting, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Fathi Sorour, declared, "Your nomination is an honor for each Egyptian, each Arab, each African ... the selection of a scholar, of a minister, of a parliamentarian like you to occupy this post during this time in history, is a tribute to Egyptian diplomacy." His remarks were interrupted again and again by applause. Praise is a heady wine, and it is easy to acquire a taste for it. But the applause was for the nation and people of Egypt, and all of us in the Chamber were filled with pride at this international tribute to our country.

On December 18, 1991, Hosni Mubarak gave me a ceremonial embrace and awarded me the Grand Cordon of the Nile. As he pinned the decoration on me, he whispered, "I am going to ruin your suit, but you can get a new one in New York." Mubarak and I shared a love of fine suits. Much later I could only smile when a critic called me "The Suit in History." Thus I began a new career at age sixty-nine.

The House on Sutton Place

The four-story Georgian town house at 3-5 Sutton Place had been built during the 1930s for a daughter of J. P. Morgan and later bought by Arthur Houghton of Corning Glass, who had offered it to the U.S. government as a residence for the American ambassador to the United Nations. When his offer was rejected in 1972, he gave it to the United Nations Association of the USA when that private organization was seeking a suitable residence for the UN secretary-general.

But I could not move in, I was told, because the building was about to undergo extensive maintenance and remodeling. A $2 million to $3 million budget had been approved by my predecessor. A new roof was needed, and all the windows would be bullet-proofed. The whole house would be air-conditioned. A Jacuzzi would be installed. While the work proceeded I would live at the Waldorf-Astoria at a cost of about $40,000 a month, an unthinkable sum. How could I live at the Waldorf at such a cost? To me, the house looked fine. I saw no need for bullet-proof windows. I had the roof inspected and after minor repairs, it was pronounced "okay." I did not want the bureaucrats to treat me like an Arab sheikh, which they seemed to want to do. I decided to move into Sutton Place after a few weeks of basic maintenance work.

In Egypt the sunrise means life, which is why the tombs of the pharaohs are all on the west side of the Nile. Our house in Cairo had a magnificent view of sunrise over the Nile, and Leia and I were delighted that the house on Sutton Place overlooked the East River. We tried to make the rooms reminiscent of our Cairo life. I installed my large collection of bronze birds, some of enormous size, which I had acquired from China, Egypt, India, Iran, Japan, and Syria. In the library I arrayed my collection of Ottoman pen cases, a kind of scabbard used by the official scribes and high secretaries of the empire. I had begun the collection as a student, when my mother had given me the pen case of my grandfather, a historian, saying, "This is for you because you are now the scholar of the family." Our friends at the Metropolitan Museum of Art lent us paintings by French artists whose work we had loved when we had lived in Paris two works of Matisse's Moroccan period for the library, a Dufy for one end of the Great Room, and a Utrillo for the other. In the small study we hung a Léger. In the dining room we placed a painting by Kandinsky and a sculpture by Archipenko and called it the Russian Room. I had sent from Egypt two Coptic sculptures from the fifth and sixth centuries and placed them in juxtaposition with a contemporary stone mask from Zimbabwe, with striking effect.

I spent long hours in the early weekends of the year arranging the art and books and antiques. I tried something similar, on a small scale, in my UN office, putting up a painting by Kees van Dongen lent by the Museum of Modern Art. Later, when Mrs. "Happy" Rockefeller came to the thirty-eighth floor, she exclaimed, "That's my van Dongen!" She had lent it to the Museum of Modern Art and had hung a copy in her home....

© Copyright 1999 Boutros Boutros-Ghali

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