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The Making of a Scapegoat

UNPROFOR, the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia, had been pitchforked into the war in Bosnia—against Boutros-Ghali’s advice—because the United States and some of its European allies were unwilling to have NATO troops involved on the ground in a shooting war. Deploying the lightly armed UN mission, with no mandate to use force, was a face-saving device, one wholly unsuited to the situation; and UNPROFOR was a perfect whipping boy when that situation predictably deteriorated. The UN force was both required to remain impartial in relation to the various forces in Bosnia and denied adequate means to carry out the humanitarian tasks assigned it by the Security Council. (It was only after the fighting had stopped and the Dayton Accords had been safely signed that a much larger, more heavily armed NATO mission, with authority to use force, was sent to Bosnia.)

In the early summer of 1993 the Security Council blithely declared that the people in six “safe areas” in Bos-nia would be protected by UNPROFOR—but it failed to change UNPROFOR’s mandate or increase its strength. When Boutros-Ghali proposed to the Security Council a force of 70,000 troops, under NATO control, to protect the “safe areas,” the US denounced his proposal as “totally unacceptable.” This suggested to the secretary-general that “for Washington, keeping the UN operation on the scene served two purposes: as a substitute for direct great power intervention and as a scape-goat for problems created by the great powers’ continued unwillingness to act decisively.”

The UN lacked the means either to prevent attacks launched from inside the “safe areas” or to deter attacks on them from the outside. At the same time the UN was expected to agree to NATO air strikes against Serb targets that could (and later did) result in Serb retaliation or in essentially defenseless and widely dispersed UN personnel being taken hostage. The issue of air action led to further friction with the US. Boutros-Ghali insisted on having a say about the use of air strikes because UN troops would be at risk; this allowed the US to blame him for blocking decisive action. The British, French, and other governments, which had troops in UNPROFOR and were also, in fact, opposed to air strikes, meekly followed the US lead and also blamed the secretary-general. (The British, French, and other contingents in UNPROFOR suffered scores of casualties during the UNPROFOR operation.) The result, Boutros-Ghali writes, was

an almost intolerable situation: continued carnage on the ground, claims of UN helplessness, and media pressures on the United States to “do something.” The “something” seemed to be air strikes, which would punish the Serbs and provide the United States and NATO with the appearance of decisiveness without risking unacceptable military losses on the ground.

The attempts to make Boutros-Ghali the scapegoat for the failure of the Western powers now became almost ludicrous. In spite of Boutros-Ghali’s installing a system by which the UN commanders on the ground, in cooperation with NATO commanders, would have the major voice in calling for air strikes, from now on he would be portrayed in Washington as the person who had blocked the US from using air power to end the war. “Critics of the United Nations from within the Clinton administration, Congress, and the media,” he writes, “asserted that war making was possible but was being prevented by pusillanimous peacekeepers. The fact was the opposite: peacekeepers had been deployed precisely because the United States and NATO were not willing to go to war.”

From this episode and from an irresponsible column in The New York Times in which Jeane Kirkpatrick implied that Boutros-Ghali had “operational control” of US forces, Robert Dole derived the line that under his presidency the US armed forces would know that the President was their commander-in-chief—not “Boootrus Boootrus”-Ghali. This often repeated statement, accompanied by the mocking and vulgar pronunciation of Boutros-Ghali’s name, never failed to win applause for Dole.

Boutros-Ghali continued his efforts to protect UN troops in Bosnia and to get adequate forces for the tasks they were given. His request for 35,000 more peacekeepers was summarily rejected. The tragedy of Srebrenica was a direct result of the failure by the Security Council to provide even remotely sufficient forces. (The Dutch UN contingent in Srebrenica was widely criticized, quite rightly, for utterly failing to restrain the atrocious General Mladic and his Serb troops, and for seeming to cooperate with them. The Dutch were, however, hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned.) Finally, in 1995, several changes took place. The Croats mounted a successful offensive; the UN forces were able to consolidate their positions; NATO launched air strikes, which, owing to the changing balance of power on the ground, had for the first time become an effective option. The fighting stopped, and a peace accord was signed at Dayton.

Once peace in Bosnia was assured, the UN, bankrupted by shielding for three years both NATO and the United States from unpleasant involvement on the ground, was largely excluded from the peace operation, except for a last-minute assignment to provide a peacekeeping force in eastern Slavonia, the region where conflict was most likely to boil up again. Boutros-Ghali reasonably pointed out that a force in such a potentially dangerous position must be able to protect itself, and suggested that a NATO/US force might therefore be appropriate. This once again brought down on him the wrath of the Clinton administration. “It is a grave mistake,” Albright’s spokesman, James Rubin, pontificated, “for the secretary-general to shy away from legitimate operations….”

Somalia, where the Clinton administration had inherited a confused mission from President Bush, quickly proved to be another source of disagreement between Boutros-Ghali and the US. The US was anxious to leave, but, despite the secretary-general’s pleas, it apparently had no intention of disarming the various factions in Mogadishu before the main body of US forces left. After twenty-six Pakistani UN soldiers were killed by the irregulars of the tribal leader Mohammed Aidid, the Security Council, in a marked departure from the tradition of impartial peacekeeping, and after emotional denunciations of Aidid by Ambassador Albright, decreed that all possible efforts be made to arrest him.

The UN Somalia command lacked effective central control, and some of the contingents—the Italians, for example—tended to go their own way, often with disastrous results. Of the remaining US troops, the Marine amphibious group and the special commando (Delta) force were entirely under US command. On October 3, 1993, without the knowledge of the UN headquarters in Mogadishu, Delta Force launched a helicopter-borne attack on a supposed Aidid headquarters in Mogadishu, during which two helicopters were shot down and eighteen US Rangers killed. An estimated one thousand Somalis were also killed during this episode.

This catastrophe, and the television pictures of a dead US soldier being dragged through the streets by jubilant Aidid supporters, had a devastating effect in Washington. Clinton’s self-defensive reaction was to blame the UN by implication for what had in fact been entirely an American operation, and others made a show of intense displeasure with the secretary-general. “Now that the manhunt has failed,” The Economist wrote, “and too many Americans have been killed in the course of it, somebody has to be blamed: so finger the UN in general, and Mr. Boutros-Ghali…in particular.”

For the US the result of the Delta Force tragedy was not only the withdrawal of all its troops from Somalia, but the end both of “assertive multilateralism” and of American support of UN peacekeeping as well. Only a week later, the USS Harlan County, carrying American and Canadian soldiers to join the UN mission in Haiti, was ordered by a nervous White House to turn tail and go home because of a reportedly hostile demonstration on the dock in Port au Prince, a humiliation both for the US and for the UN.3

Much worse was to follow the next year, when the UN Security Council, under US leadership and in spite of Boutros-Ghali’s plea to increase the small UN force in Rwanda to 5,500 soldiers, instead reduced it to a token force of 270. Thus the Council stood apart from the genocide that was gaining momentum throughout the country just at the moment when it might still have been possible to stop much of the slaughter. Nearly one million Rwandans died before the Security Council was finally shamed into acting.

As the years went by there seemed to be fewer and fewer issues on which the US and Boutros-Ghali could agree. Even the appointment of a new executive director of UNICEF caused friction because Clinton’s candidate was a man and Boutros-Ghali was determined to appoint a woman, Carol Bellamy.

In May 1996 there was a major row over an incident at Qana in south-ern Lebanon in which Israeli forces shelled a UN post, killing some one hundred Lebanese civilians who had taken refuge there. The UN military mission sent to investigate the incident concluded that it was “unlikely that the shelling of the UN compound was the result of gross technical and/or procedural errors.” Since Boutros-Ghali faced possible reelection in only six months, it took considerable moral courage for him to publish an objective military report that was bound to infuriate both the Israelis and the United States. Albright’s spokesman, James Rubin, excelled himself this time, saying that Ambassador Albright was “so devastated that the Secretary-General chose to draw unjustified conclusions about this incident that can only divide and polarize the environment rather than the practical lessons that could prevent such a tragedy from happening again.”

Clinton administration officials had wanted no report at all, fearing that criticism of Israel would damage Shimon Peres’s chances for election as prime minister, and they credited Boutros-Ghali with contributing to his defeat. That the secretary-general has an obligation to the 185 other UN members to tell the truth as he sees it about a major incident involving the UN seems not to have mattered to Washington.


The mood was turning increasingly nasty, as disparaging stories about Boutros-Ghali were leaked to the press. “I had, I read, entangled the United States in Somalia and taken command of its forces there,” he writes.

I had prevented President Clinton from bombing to stop the perpetrators of war crimes in Bosnia; I had tried to impose global taxes in order to aggrandize my power at the United Nations; and I had blocked the admirable efforts of the United States to reform the United Nations…. I was portrayed as responsible for America’s lack of faith in the United Nations and the Congress’s unwillingness to pay the huge American financial debt to the United Nations.

After several attempts to get Boutros-Ghali to state publicly that he would not seek reelection, Warren Christopher, on June 19, 1996, announced to The New York Times the “irrevocable” decision of the Clinton administration to veto his reelection. This decision would normally have been announced when the Security Council took up the matter in the fall. There could be little doubt that the main reason for the timing of the announcement was to take away the popular, UN-bashing, “Boootrus-Boootrus” issue from the Republicans during the presidential campaign.

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    The US and UN representatives in Haiti were both on the dock with the demonstrators—a few dozen thugs hired by the military regime—waiting to welcome the Harlan County.

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