Spy or Savior?
It turned out that he was not equally gifted at anticipating the whims of politicians, either in Washington or abroad. What this boiled down to was that Cuny, far from being his own master and seeking ever-greater risks as a means of self-promotion, as Anderson describes it, was being tossed by his employers into situations he did not understand, for purposes neither he nor anybody else could clearly articulate.
Operation Provide Comfort gave Cuny five-star credentials in dealing with complex emergencies. But Provide Comfort--a humanitarian intervention massively backed by a recently victorious military coalition--was an anomaly because of the limited number of manipulable players on the ground. The next complex emergency Cuny worked on, Somalia, revealed more of his weaknesses even as it confirmed his strengths. The United States would not, I strongly believe, have gone into Somalia in 1992 if not for Cuny. I watched him in action making the tour of Washington, talking the ears off senior officials in a surprisingly successful attempt to convince them to do something about famine relief. But they did not do it the way he recommended! Anderson has that part right too. Cuny did not want intervention anywhere near Mogadishu or in any manner involved in clan warfare. Carried out in that way it was a disaster, as he predicted it would be. Nevertheless, Cuny demonstrated a bothersome lack of foresight in terms of the politics of the bureaucratic process.
In Sarajevo we again see, this time on a foreign front, a critical disconnection between Cuny's ability to get things done and his ability to cope with the ambiguities of high-level, wartime political machinations. He built a fantastic water project that would have saved a lot of lives (most people killed during the shelling were killed getting water from public wells), but when he tried to turn it on, the Muslim authorities wouldn't let him. A memo he wrote speaks for itself:
In what has to be one of the most frustrating and bizarre meetings in my life, our team was pleading with the city government to turn on the water during the heaviest day of shelling in Sarajevo in 6 months. With bullets literally pinging off the window sill and rounds going off in the lot next door, the Water Institute was talking about a long-term testing regime that was more complex than anything we would see in the U.S.
Later he told me that the Muslims had actually fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the facility to get him to back off. He did. (The spigot was eventually opened quite a while after Cuny's departure from Sarajevo, after his death; it did help save the city in the latter days of the siege.) But Cuny had failed to understand the politics of the Bosnian war, the essential corruption of the Muslim leaders and possibly even the desire to preserve one of the city's most poignant images of suffering.
What, then, was the purpose of a humanitarian intervention in Chechnya? Cuny's backers tended to see a wider pattern of complex emergencies for which humanitarian intervention was everywhere the thin end of the wedge of further military intervention tied to geostrategic political purposes. It's unimportant that those larger purposes went undefined. Perhaps the UN could have been called in to Chechnya; perhaps something else could have been done. Political pressure, if successful, could have stopped the war. If not, there would be many other complex emergencies to choose from. But Cuny was still thinking in terms of the nuts and bolts of helping people and was simply unaware of the political forces arrayed against him. He trusted those he worked for to handle that part of it. They didn't.
Anderson describes a memorial service held for Fred Cuny at the Carnegie Endowment in September 1995.
In attendance were most of Fred's extended family, along with representatives of scores of humanitarian relief agencies, diplomats, State Department personnel, foreign ambassadors, even National Security Advisor Anthony Lake.... The tributes--some humorous, some sad--continued for well over two hours. Afterward Craig Cuny [Fred's son] felt vaguely annoyed.... "I guess in a way I'm tired of it," he said. "It gets tiring to hear all these people talking about how much they loved my father, how great he was, when he spent his whole career butting heads with most of them and trying to get them to listen."
I was there too and also felt annoyed, but for a different reason. The people Cuny worked for should have taken better care of him. They should have stopped him from going back to Chechnya once it became obvious he was scared (and he was very scared--possibly for the first time in his life). They should have scaled back their ambitions. They should at least have uttered a single mea culpa.