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Behind the Blue Helmets | The Nation

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Behind the Blue Helmets

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The new US envoy to the United Nations, Richard Holbrooke, has personal experience of how frustrating it can be to negotiate, even when speaking in the name of that mega-cliché, "the world's only superpower." He has a loud voice, and potentially a big stick. One would expect a little more forbearance for the UN, whose negotiating style has perforce to be with a soft voice and a more flaccid stick. However, that did not stop Holbrooke from throwing down the challenge to the UN in Kosovo, implying that it was a make-or-break effort for the world organization. For a different perspective, it is good to turn to Man Without a Gun, a UN chronicle by the soft-spoken but hard-centered diplomat Giandomenico Picco.

About the Author

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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I know at least one jaded UN staff member who bought Picco's book for his children, "To show that you can work for the UN and do some good." However, the children may well conclude that there are easier ways to save one's soul than working in an organization that has often required its staff to mouth lofty principles while simultaneously asking them to grovel in the mud before anyone powerful enough to violate those same principles with impunity.

In fact, you could read this account of Picco's career as a textbook on how to fail in a UN career. Picco's original sins are having principles and taking initiative. Either one could make life difficult, but the two together can be fatal to professional longevity in the UN, where almost any action or statement is bound to annoy at least one member state. Nevertheless, Picco himself concludes that "one hundred people who believe deeply that principles should be the guiding light of the UN can alter the course of human events and make a difference for future generations."

He is right in some ways. However, there are far more than a hundred people in the UN system who subscribe to those beliefs, but they rarely have the chance to expose the lights so hermetically sealed under a bureaucratic bushel. As a young Italian staff member, Picco had the good fortune to be spotted by Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. The Peruvian Secretary General contrived a contradictory combination of high press accessibility with low media visibility, and Picco's book helps redress the balance with a much more sympathetic portrait than usual.

A UN Secretary General has a hard time with his management team, most of whose senior members are in fact foisted on him by the permanent five members of the Security Council. Usually, SGs surround themselves with a core team of people they can trust--and clearly in Picco's case Pérez de Cuéllar chose well. Picco has no romantic illusions about the organization. He began work in a department controlled by a Soviet double agent, and his first experience in "the field" was in Cyprus--where even now the jury is out on whether the UN's presence has averted a massive catastrophe or artificially maintained an inherently unstable standoff that could explode at any moment. Later he was involved in the complex diplomatic shadow boxing around Afghanistan, where the UN was helping Mikhail Gorbachev make a dignified withdrawal.

Picco soon came across the UN's unwritten rules dictating the kind of spurious balance that was later to prove so disastrous in Bosnia: to take each side at its face value. He deduces that "impartiality is not a useful concept.... Only later did I come to realize that what both sides of a conflict want from a mediator is not impartiality but credibility--the ability to deliver the goods."

As he noticed, "accusations of partisanship" are "an easy way to put pressure on the middleman and find out what he is made of." In the case of the UN, the middlepeople were often found to be made of jelly, and, as Picco says, "relaxing your guard begins an inevitable process: you lose credibility, you lose the issue, you lose control."

Although he was not directly involved himself, he correctly diagnoses the problem when it reached its noxious nadir in Bosnia, where the UN abandoned its claims to represent any principle higher than that of being a vector of forces of the contending partners. "When the multicultural Bosnia died, a piece of the United Nations died with it," he laments.

However, an effective idealist has to be realistic, and Picco is all of that. He had the fortune to be in at the beginning of a newly activist role for the UN as an institution, rather than as an arena for others to stage their combats. Dag Hammarskjöld is often taken as the very model of a modern Secretary General, but he was in fact an activist aberration. Almost a proto-New Ager, he was able to get up the nostrils of both sides in the cold war, which gave him a freedom of maneuver but persuaded the Security Council never to repeat the experience.

Even so, as Picco says, the office of Secretary General had "a particular value compared with intergovernmental bodies or individual states, especially when both sides seemed to be groping for a middleman to unlock them from intractable positions." That perspective proved critical on a diplomatic mission in 1991, when, after Picco had been hustled hooded through the back streets of Beirut, his opposite number from the hostage-takers wanted to know whether he represented the Security Council or the Secretary General. It was a sophisticated question, and the wrong answer carried a dire penalty. Picco gave the right one--the Secretary General.

Although flamboyance was alien to his nature, Pérez de Cuéllar had decided to shift from a peacekeeping to a peacemaking role in the first, and all too often forgotten, Gulf War, between Iran and Iraq. Pérez de Cuéllar did eventually help bring it to an end, with little or no assistance. Even in the UN, there was opposition to this mission creep, since, as he says, "bureaucrats who hide behind their desks are often the first to launch missiles against change." Picco was an active supporter of and participant in the process and soon began to lead a life more like that of an escaped John le Carré character than a red-tape weaver.

Unabashed by morality or factuality, the permanent Security Council members waxed and waned in their support for the Iran-Iraq mediation, along with Iraq's prospects on the battlefield. They passed Resolution 598, calling for an end to the fighting, but left it up to the UN to implement it. Only when it was clear that Iraq was unlikely to topple Teheran and might even lose was there any enthusiasm for the UN's hard work. Crucial to Iranian acceptance was paragraph 6, which promised a report on who caused the war.

Tactfully, Picco does not belabor the point that most of the world was united in support of Iraq, despite its use of chemical weapons and despite the clear evidence of Iraqi aggression starting the conflict.

That report was crucial to the next and more spectacular stage of Picco's career--the hostage crises in Lebanon. The situation made the adjective "Levantine" seem an example of litotes when applied to local politics. Following the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion of 1982, various groups took hostages, foreign and local, for reasons political and commercial. The political assumption was that the West bankrolled and supported Israel, and so Western hostages gave leverage to release militants captured by Israel.

Equally simplistically, the West assumed that Hezbollah was a surrogate for Iran. In fact, it had its own interests, clans and politics, and even Iran was far from homogenous in its power structure. Alongside Hezbollah there were the other Palestinian and Lebanese groups, operating with varying degrees of blessing from Syria, and some connections to Libya. Although Iran did not have control over the kidnappers, it certainly had influence, and its leaders' eagerness for an exonerative report gave Picco an ace to play in gaining their cooperation.

On the other side were the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy and of course the hostages themselves. Playing a slightly separate game was Israel, which actually had more hostages than all the others put together. Of course, Israel and its supporters did not describe them thus, but it did hold about 300 prisoners, incommunicado and without due process, and was prepared to release all of them in return for a missing Israeli airman, Ron Arad.

In a way, one element of balance missing is names and personalities for the 300. In comparison, the Lebanese held so few that they were campaigned for as individuals, like Terry Anderson and Terry Waite. One of the few memorable names was Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, whose kidnapping by Israel was tantamount to Hezbollah taking the Chief Rabbi hostage. Indeed, one of the demands from the Shiite kidnappers was for the "UN to impose upon Israel the humanitarian laws that apply to prisoners of war, and to make clear that at the moment they are not following those laws."

Picco has no difficulty in verifying that this was true. He continually pushed for a visit to the Khiam prison, where they were kept, and asked the Israelis to refrain from following up on agreed releases with kidnapping raids to replenish their "inventory." Unsurprisingly, his respect for the Israeli contact is matched by understanding and respect for the conditions that gave rise to Hezbollah--a force that drove out the Americans, chased the Israelis out of most of Southern Lebanon and is now doing the same in the far south.

To complicate things further, Picco could not even rely on a firm home base in the far-from-homogenous UN. It took the direct patronage of Pérez de Cuéllar to keep the red tape off his airline tickets when he was going on hostage missions. He would make three reservations and change them at the airport. This was not paranoia. There were groups that would have been happy to add him to their inventory, and the UN was notoriously leaky.

Pérez de Cuéllar and Picco were both setting themselves up as scapegoats if anything went wrong with their intermediation, which was not helped by the United States, which persisted in running separate channels without telling them. "American politicians fell into two categories, those with passports and those without," he concludes, adding that President Bush was "a man with a passport." Even then, he recounts the turf wars between National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker that made US policy a continual source of confusion.

Inadvertently, the best thing to happen to the hostages was Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Iraqi troops released the seventeen Shiite prisoners there. His sudden fall from Western grace made it, if not exactly respectable, certainly less reprehensible than before to deal with the Iranians, and above all made it possible for the Secretary General to issue the promised report on the origins of the Iran-Iraq war without getting too much flak from Washington and others.

Compiled by three European academics, the report concluded that Iraq's invasion of Iran flouted the "charter of the UN, any recognized rules and principles of international law, or any principles of international morality, and entails the responsibility for the conflict." Even so, the conclusion was almost whispered, lest anyone pick it up. It was, Picco says, also rushed out in fear that the incoming Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, would favor suppressing it.

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.

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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