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Behind the Blue Helmets | The Nation

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Behind the Blue Helmets

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It was not so much the conclusion itself, which was self-evident. Teheran saw it as a tremendous moral vindication, but it was almost ignored elsewhere, because the conclusions that followed from the premise of Iraqi blame were unpalatable. The Gulf States had bankrolled--and Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States had equipped--a predatory war of aggression that had caused millions of casualties. Even as the report was being released, they had drafted against Iraq the most punitive resolution since Rome plowed salt into the ruins of Carthage.

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Ian Williams
Ian Williams is The Nation's UN correspondent. In addition to his work for the magazine, he frequently comments on...

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In comparison with the invasion of Iran, Kuwait was a peccadillo, and yet Iraq was being assessed for Versailles-dwarfing compensation. I remember trying, as a reporter, to get word from the Iranian mission on why they did not attempt to put a sort of prior lien on all this compensation, but they were more eager for the moral vindication than the monetary damages.

The culmination of much of this complex multilateral haggling came in 1992. The paragraph 6 report and release of some of the Khiam prisoners were matched by identification of some of the Israeli MIAs and the release of most of the Western hostages. Some things did not reach completion. The American promise of "goodwill for goodwill" to Teheran was scuppered, and Secretary of State Baker's offer of secret talks on diplomatic relations with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akhbar Velayati was not acted on. Ron Arad is still missing, and Israel still holds Lebanese hostages or prisoners in Khiam.

Even so, the release of the Western hostages allowed the UN to bask in the unaccustomed glow of public approbation, and Picco deservedly cut a heroic figure for the organization. Unfortunately, the UN's hierarchy does not include a slot for media stars--or heroes for that matter--and the triumph came at the changing of the guard as Boutros-Ghali replaced Pérez de Cuéllar. Especially in his early years, Boutros-Ghali did not want to emulate his predecessor's tentative steps toward an activist role. He saw the UN's role as doing what it was told to do by the important member states. Boutros-Ghali's 1993 description of UN aims in Bosnia as "that of the member states" is censoriously described by Picco as "politically shrewd but also wrong, an answer unworthy of the leader of the UN."

Boutros-Ghali also presumed that the role of subordinates inside the UN was to do what they were told unquestioningly. Obsessed with stopping the waste and corruption that the United States had convinced him dominated the organization, he put a blanket ban on travel that was not pre-authorized. There was indeed a lot of junketing by senior officials, but the trouble with a ukase like that was that it did not allow for exceptions. And Picco's case was surely one. Boutros-Ghali's management style was shown when he announced Picco's appointment to the very important job of heading the oil-for-food negotiations with Iraq without actually asking him.

Picco was not arrogant--but neither could a humble person have done what he did. It clearly rankled him to be cut out of the loop in which Pérez de Cuéllar had included him, not just on personal grounds but also on the grounds of efficiency. He could not do the kind of high-level job he had been doing without mutual confidence, indeed rapport, with his boss. As a result, in 1992 Picco did the unthinkable for a UN bureaucrat. Instead of grumbling and playing office politics, he resigned. The UN is the poorer for it, but the rest of us are richer--we would be unlikely to get such a candid and informative book from an incumbent. Being an idealist in principle while a realist in practice can easily make a cynic, but Picco shows that it is possible to deal with the real world in its most sordid aspects, keep one's principles and yet make the world a better, however imperfect, place.

Picco's career demonstrates the possibilities of the UN while showing how important the character of its Secretary General is in determining the extent to which those possibilities can be realized. As he concludes, the SG and his staff uniquely "can afford to act on the basis of principles, even without 'return.'" Picco also demonstrates, almost inadvertently, the way in which that enables the UN to help rescue countries in general (and the United States in particular) from the consequences of their own stupidity. And if he was treated ungratefully by the UN, the UN has in turn been treated in an even more curmudgeonly mannner by its beneficiaries in Washington.

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