A U.S.-U.N. Saga

By Boutros Boutros-Ghali

Random House. 352 pp. $29.95

Reviewed by Fouad Ajami

Consider the two principal characters of this tale: She is, by his account, a loud woman, "short and plump," a novice in foreign affairs, hostage to the currents of her unsophisticated American homeland, at sea among worldly people and in the affairs of nations. He, by contrast, is a figure of the Old World and of the international diplomatic circuit, an aristocrat, steeped in the language and the ways of France and the Levant, a man with a taste for fine art and well-cut suits. The clash of such protagonists is easy to understand.

In his book, former U.N. secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali has come to speak of his nemesis, the American secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. He has come to damn Albright; he has instead put on display the shallowness that had been his hallmark all along. As he tells it, he had tried and tried to work out an accommodation with Albright during her tenure as U.N. ambassador. She had been sly, the American envoy; she had told him that she considered herself in her "freshman year at the UN school" but had intrigued against him. He was respected at the United Nations and he was loved in Paris and Africa, and the Arabs and Ted Turner supported him for a second term as secretary-general in 1996, but Albright, bent on "eliminating" him, had prevailed.

He has his press clippings (the book is loaded with them, tributes to his independence and his determination to make the United Nations a power in its own right) to show that the Clinton administration had pushed him overboard in a naked assertion of American power. They had done it, he says, to preempt the yahoos in American politics, who had taken a dislike to him. He had acquired a nickname, Boo-Boo; thanks to Bob Dole, who relished haranguing the Republican Party faithful about Boo-trus Boo-trus-Ghali, the Egyptian diplomat had become a lightning rod for the isolationists and the America-firsters. He was then shown no mercy by a Clinton team eager to demonstrate, in the midst of a presidential campaign, that they were not given to excessive faith in multilateralism.

In the Levant, there are children of Paris and children of Pax Americana, and this was surely a man of French manners and outlook. He had a double dosage of anti-Americanism. It came from the Third Worldism he had taken to as a younger man, and was, in good measure, a French inheritance as well. The Americans were boors or worse; he could never take to their ways. He had trouble finding the right way to address Secretary of State Warren Christopher. "Dear Warren," he began a letter to the American; his staff, keen to teach him the American informality and the American slang, was thrown into an uproar and urged that he address him as "Chris." He would do nothing of the sort. He settled on what he felt comfortable with: "Dear Mr. Secretary."

It so happened, then, in an era of unquestioned American primacy, that a man had risen to the helm of the United Nations who had no feel for American culture, who had taken seriously his own boasts in the endless "blue books" produced by his staff that a new age of "collective security" had begun. America had reclaimed the United Nations in 1990-91, made it an instrument of American power after years of estrangement and an era when the United Nations had been written off as a forum for the disgruntled of the Third World. The Egyptian had missed all that: He had come (and the prose gives away the pretensions of the man) "to construct an agreed upon, post-Cold War structure for international peace and security." What he met instead was the American envoy who shot him down and robbed him of the dream of his second term at the helm of the world body, a vengeful woman who on one occasion "barely sipped the excellent 1993 Chateau Margaux Pavillon blanc" he had opened in her honor.

Boutros-Ghali has now slipped into obscurity; France fought for his reappointment, and France lost. He was given a consolation prize: He is now secretary general of Francophone, an international association of countries sharing French language and culture. The last time he was heard from was earlier this year when he made a passage to Cambodia -- after all, Khmer Rouge killers speak French, too. He met with Khieu Samphan, head of state in the nightmarish Khmer Rouge years, and Nuon Chea (Brother Number Two of the mass murderer Pol Pot). After meeting with these men, Boutros-Ghali proclaimed that the matter of Cambodia was an "internal affair" to be settled by Cambodians, without an international tribunal. He knew of such things, he said, for he had been a professor of international law.

The sacking of the man who walked into Sarajevo in the middle of its terrible ordeal in 1992 to tell its people that he could name "ten other places" that were worse off than their own city is a tribute to Madeleine Albright. She may have done it for the wrong reasons, but the man who gave the United Nations a 50th-birthday bash while the horrors of Bosnia were being played out and who saw little difference between the Serbs and their victims had a moral obtuseness all his own. He had averted his gaze from great crimes in Bosnia; he had hoped that the powers that be at the United Nations whose dirty work he had done (the Americans, the British, the French) would reward him with a second mandate for the cover he had given their abdication during those terrible, dark Bosnian years. They had taken the services he rendered, and then walked away from him. Now if only the Bosnians had spoken French.

Fouad Ajami is professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the author of "The Dream Palace of the Arabs."