Boutros Boutros-Ghali was not one for political correctness. Despite his urbane diplomatic ways he found it difficult to dissemble least of all when confronted with what one might call unwarranted arrogance or even common stupidity. Not exactly modest himself, at least he had a strong intellect to match his aristocratic pride. From one of the patrician families, he ended up in the party founded by Nasser, but when confronted with contumely because of his grandparent, the original Boutros Ghali, a prime minister had been assassinated by nationalists, he hyphenated the name and made it his own surname in place of Ghali.
He recalled to me once that while his grandfather had to wrestle with actual British power in Cairo, his grandfather's appointment had to be ratified by a firman from the Ottoman Court in Constantinople since Egypt had passed from practical independence to British neocolonialism while still being officially bound to the Sultan. A background in such arcanae was good preparation for the UN. When he was attacked for saying that the keystone resolution, 242, on the Middle East was not a binding Security Council Resolution, it gave rise to the epithet Boo Boo. But as he explained later, 242 in itself is not binding, but 338 which invokes Chapter VII of the UN Charter and 242, did make it so.
A Coptic Christian with a Jewish wife needed a thick skin in the days of heady nationalism and none more so than when he accompanied Anwar Sadat to negotiate peace with Israel. This was a dangerous era when posturing Arab nationalists were quite prepared to stand for their principles no matter what the cost to the actual Palestinians, not to mention Arab conscripts, would be. They were quite prepared to assassinate those who disagreed. Boutros-Ghali was no starry eyed idealist: he knew that the almost terminally disastrous 1973 attack was what had belatedly converted Israeli leaders to the idea that peace might have its virtues.
Later he would complain that the concomitant parts of the agreement, to attend to the Palestinian part, had been abandoned. The fervent nationalists never forgave him for his part in brokering the peace, and neither Sadat nor Mubarak had the strength to appoint him as actual foreign minister with his Coptic ancestry. When the UN vacancy came up it was almost a godsend for Mubarak in how to rid himself of this worrisome Copt who could be neither fired nor promoted otherwise.
In 1992, Africa and the non-aligned countries had said it was Africa's turn for the job, and as the US told the relatively unconvinced ambassadors from sub-Sahara African countries, Egypt was in the African Union! In fact, Boutros-Ghali was already deeply concerned and involved in Africa as part of Egyptian foreign policy and did his best to bring the continent a stronger presence in the UN.
The French supported him, partly because, being a French speaker educated at the Sorbonne, he promised to restore French in practice to the position it held nominally as one of the UN's two working languages. He seemed to offer a good compromise: nominally African, culturally Western, and from an Arab country. The Security Council appointed him, even though he was only a little younger than Javier Pérez De Culler, the retiring incumbent.
Boutros-Ghali was also perhaps one of the few Arabs acceptable, at least initially, to the Israel Lobby in Washington, because of his part in Camp David. But he genuinely tried to put Africa on the agenda of the UN, and demanded attention for a continent that was indeed dark as far as Washington was concerned. When he said 'Genocide in Africa has not received the same attention that genocide in Europe or genocide in Turkey or genocide in other part of the world. There is still this kind of basic discrimination against the African people and the African problems,' it might have been unpalatable-- but it was certainly true.
Boutros-Ghali was nobody's puppet but he had to deal with the new reality after the Soviet Union fell. Earlier SG's could play the great powers off against each other, but now, there was only one Great Power, and its Congress was run by anti-UN demagogues. In Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia the pattern in Clinton's Washington was to pass the problem to the UN, and then to refuse to provide the UN with the resources it would need, to cope. Boutros-Ghali once summed up his situation as follows: 'I can do nothing. I have no army. I have no money. I have no experts. I am borrowing everything. If the member states don't want it, what can I do?'
While Arab nationalists and Third Worldists saw him as an American puppet, he was in fact far more nuanced. Like many he doubted the capacity of Washington to run the world, even if it had the power. He knew that the UN depended on the US to be effective, but also that the US needed to UN to steer the New World Order. His astute assessment was, 'When the United Nations was allowed to do its job without substantial US involvement, as in Mozambique, the operation succeeded. When the United States felt a political need for the United Nations, as in Haiti, the operation also fulfilled its main objective. But when the United States wanted to appear actively involved while in reality avoiding hard decisions, as in Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda, the United Nations was misused, abused or blamed by the United States and the operations failed, tragically and horribly.'
He continually and publicly pointed out when UN peacekeeping forces were being deployed to some crisis zone only to provide political cover for domestic political reasons but were not given the resources to succeed.
Washington treated the end of the Cold War as an opportunity (in the UN and elsewhere) to ride roughshod over any rival claimants to power. Boutros-Ghali, both on principle and on account of his proud temperament, refused to bow to the whims of Washington. He paid the price. While many blamed the US refusal to back him for a second term on his refusal to bury Israel's shelling of the UN camp in Qana, in South Lebanon, that killed scores of local civilians who had taken refugee there, he himself discounted that and privately attributed it to American realization that he was in effect trying to cobble together a "Loyal Opposition" to the US that would force it to listen to the rest of the world.
Ironically, the American veto that denied him a second term achieved that coalition. Madeleine Albright voted against everyone else as even America's closest allies, in exasperation voted against her. It was one of the low marks of American diplomacy. And Boutros-Ghali, sadly, might have been over-sanguine about the sophistication of American statecraft. She felt personally scorned by him, and almost certainly traded his head for her assured confirmation as Secretary of State by the antediluvian isolationist Senator Jesse Helms, Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The French showed their gratitude by appointing him as head La Francophonie, which gave him, if not great power, at least great influence and the ear of some 80 member states. One can be sure that he conveyed an unsentimental view of the strengths and weaknesses of the "indispensable power," as Albright called it.
Ian Williams' new book "UNtold" - a graphic account of the UN, will be coming out from Just World Books in early 2017.