Six years ago, Samantha Power burst onto the scene with “A Problem From Hell”, her urgent and impassioned indictment of American inaction in the face of genocide. With the thoroughness and relentlessness of a prosecutor, Power documented how US officials sat idly by as Armenians were slaughtered in Turkey, Cambodians were massacred by the Khmer Rouge, Kurds were gassed by Saddam Hussein and Bosnian Muslims were murdered by Bosnian Serbs. She extolled the work of such courageous crusaders as Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish immigrant who coined the term “genocide” in 1944 and lobbied diligently for the passage of the UN’s Genocide Convention, which was approved by the General Assembly in 1948 and ratified by the United States forty years later. Lamenting the fact that “no U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority,” Power assailed US officials for responding to “unspeakable atrocities” by trusting in negotiation, clinging to diplomatic niceties and shipping injured parties humanitarian aid. The United States, she maintained, should subject perpetrators to a harsher array of measures–threatening them with prosecution, shutting their embassies in Washington, imposing economic sanctions. Genocide poses such a serious threat to American values and interests, Power argued, that the United States should be prepared “to risk the lives of its soldiers” in order to stop it, even if this means acting unilaterally outside the framework of the United Nations.
The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2003, “A Problem From Hell” propelled Power from the tilling fields of freelance journalism and adjunct professorship into the empyrean realm of public intellectualdom. She was named to Time magazine’s list of the world’s top 100 scientists and thinkers. She became a columnist for that magazine and a regular contributor to The New Yorker. At Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where she had already served as the founding executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, she was named the Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership. In 2005, after receiving a call from Senator Barack Obama, who had read her book, Power became one of his foreign policy advisers, a position she held until March, when her description of Hillary Clinton as “a monster” set off a political firestorm. Despite that misstep, if Obama is elected President, Power seems likely to join his administration in some senior capacity.
Yet, in the harsh glare of recent events, “A Problem From Hell” seems less persuasive than when it came out. Appearing as the Bush Administration was pressing its case for attacking Iraq, the book, with its advocacy of humanitarian military intervention and its description of Saddam’s regime as genocidal in nature, fed support for the war in some liberal circles. Now, with more than 140,000 US troops bogged down in that country, and with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead and millions more displaced in the largest episode of forced migration in the Middle East since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the idea of relying on unilateral American military power to achieve humanitarian ends seems largely discredited.
In her new book, Power offers something of a response. Not explicitly. Nowhere in Chasing the Flame does she refer to the position she so ardently set out in “A Problem From Hell”. Yet in her new book she clearly seems to be trying to adapt her global vision to the realities of the post-Iraq world. Her vehicle this time is Sergio Vieira de Mello, a career diplomat for the UN who, until his death in August 2003 in the ghastly suicide attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad, was a sort of geopolitical Zelig, showing up in war zones around the world on a mission to make peace, build nation-states and repatriate refugees–all part of “the fight to save the world,” as Power puts it in her subtitle.
Power first met Vieira de Mello in 1994, when she was a young freelance journalist covering the former Yugoslavia and he was a senior adviser to the UN peacekeeping force there. “A cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy” is how one of her colleagues described him, and over dinner at a seafood restaurant in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, she was immediately smitten–with his intellect, his charm and his dedication to the principles for which the UN stands. In Chasing the Flame, Power casts Vieira de Mello as a model internationalist whose career is rich in lessons for our conflict-ridden world. At the UN, she writes, Vieira de Mello stood out for his linguistic skills, cultural breadth, critical mind, political savvy, humanitarian commitments and world-weary wisdom wrested from many years in the field. While Vieira de Mello never formulated a “guiding doctrine,” she adds, he “did have a thirty-four-year head start in thinking about the plagues that preoccupy us today: civil war, refugee flows, religious extremism, suppressed national and religious identity, genocide, and terrorism.” With the world’s cultural and religious fissures threatening to widen, Power states, “there is no better time to turn for guidance to a man whose long journey under fire helps to reveal the roots of our current predicament–and perhaps the remedies.”
Power has brought to Chasing the Flame the same prodigious research skills she displayed in her first book. She conducted more than 400 interviews, scanned more than 10,000 pages of cables and memos, and examined Vieira de Mello’s handwritten notes. At 622 pages, Chasing the Flame may be the longest book ever written about a bureaucrat (excepting perhaps Adolf Eichmann). We learn about the type of music Vieira de Mello liked to relax to (Beethoven and other classical composers), the brand of whiskey he preferred (Johnnie Walker Black Label), the cut of clothes he favored (crisply starched button-down shirts, Ferragamo ties). Power lists the various members of his many mission teams and enumerates the seemingly endless procession of women he bedded. (Handsome and vain, Vieira de Mello, though married, was a compulsive womanizer.) For most readers, Chasing the Flame offers far more detail than they will ever want to know about a man who never held a position higher than that of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
In the end, however, Power’s meticulousness proves a great asset, for it has led her to document instances of not only triumph but also folly in Vieira de Mello’s career. And while she presents him as embodying the UN system at its best–its dedication to humanitarianism, multilateralism and dialogue–a strong case can be made, based on the evidence she presents, that he represented the UN system at its worst–its timidity, mediocrity and zeal for self-protection. In the course of her book, the gulf between these two Sergios becomes glaring, yet Power never really faces up to it–never fully comes to terms with the man’s many flaws. As a result, Chasing the Flame has a strangely uneven tone–sharply authoritative in some places, oddly reticent in others. This, in turn, seems to reflect Power’s intellectual confusion as she struggles to move beyond the outdated worldview she articulated in her celebrated first book.
As a young man, Sergio Vieira de Mello considered himself a student revolutionary. Born in Rio de Janeiro, he graduated from a Franco-Brazilian high school and then briefly attended the University of Rio before moving to Europe to study philosophy, first at the University of Fribourg and then at the Sorbonne. Vieira de Mello was in Paris in May 1968 when the giant street protests broke out. Joining in, he was arrested, receiving in the process a gash above his right eye so severe that it would require corrective surgery thirty-five years later. This episode, however, would prove “the apex of his antiestablishment activism,” as Power puts it. Unable to find a teaching job, Vieira de Mello landed a position with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 1971, at age 23, he was sent into the field for the first time, to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to help Bengalis displaced from Pakistan. Feeding and sheltering refugees, Vieira de Mello realized that he was meant to be a man of action, and his career path was set.
After working with refugees in southern Sudan and Cyprus, Vieira de Mello was sent to Lebanon in 1981 to serve as an adviser to the UN peacekeeping force, educating commanders on the political lay of the land. After the Israelis invaded Lebanon and occupied the southern part of the country, in 1982, he was shocked to see how little respect they showed the UN flag. Still imbued with his anti-imperialist views, he engaged in small acts of civil disobedience–refusing to submit requests for travel permits to Israeli authorities; moving around without escorts; sitting in his car at checkpoints in the hot sun for an entire afternoon, denying the Israelis permission to search it. When briefing incoming groups of peacekeepers, Vieira de Mello urged them “to avoid close association with the occupiers, so as to maintain the faith of the populace.”
These displays of “youthful absolutism,” as Power calls them, would soon give way to the “pragmatism” for which Vieira de Mello “would later be known.” It is this quality of Vieira de Mello’s–his canny ability to size up the actual state of affairs and fashion solutions acceptable to all parties–that Power most admires in him. In practice, however, this trait often seems a cover for expedience and capitulation. An early example occurs in the late 1980s, when Vieira de Mello was assigned to help resolve the crisis of the Vietnamese “boat people.” More than a decade after the end of the Vietnam War, Vietnamese were still abandoning their country in droves and washing up on the shores of Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Thailand. Most were fleeing not political persecution but economic hardship. With the host countries and Western governments eager to stanch the flow, UNHCR set out to develop a plan that would facilitate the orderly return of the refugees to Vietnam while providing for case-by-case screening so that those facing a genuine threat of persecution could be identified and allowed to seek asylum. For thirteen months Vieira de Mello shuttled among key Western and East Asian capitals, working to hammer out a consensus. The result was a comprehensive resettlement plan that, at the insistence of the host governments, allowed for the use of coercion in forcing the refugees to return. This drew sharp protests from human rights advocates, including at UNHCR, where voluntariness was a core principle. Vieira de Mello, however, dismissed such concerns as foolhardy. When the plan was finally carried out, many refugees were indeed roughly handled, with guards in Hong Kong going so far as to inject them with sedatives to get them onto the transport planes.
In the end, the plan did work–some 70,000 migrants were sent back to Vietnam, and the flow out of that country slowed to a trickle–but only at a heavy cost to the rights of the migrants. Power acknowledges this. While Vieira de Mello may have been correct in believing that he had extracted the most humane possible outcome from the governments involved, she writes, “he could have gone to greater lengths to use his pulpit at UNHCR to try to ensure that the Vietnamese were more fairly screened in the camps and were better treated en route back to Vietnam.” For a person “who recited UN ideals with near-romantic reverence,” she observes, “Vieira de Mello had proven himself remarkably willing to compromise those principles.” This hardly seems the stuff of an internationalist role model.
Those principles would receive a further test in Cambodia. Vieira de Mello was sent there in 1991 as part of the large UN peacekeeping mission set up after Cambodia’s four factions signed the Paris peace agreement in October 1991. The mission was designed to help the country move from dictatorship to democracy, with elections scheduled for the spring of 1993. To help prepare for the vote, 360,000 Cambodian refugees who had been marooned on the Thai border were to be repatriated. Vieira de Mello was assigned to oversee the operation. The most pressing question he faced was how to deal with the Khmer Rouge. Many of the refugees had fled the group and would have to return to territory still under its control. Soon after arriving in Phnom Penh, Vieira de Mello visited a former Khmer Rouge torture center in which 20,000 people had been killed, and he was revolted by the photos of the victims he saw. Nonetheless, he was convinced that, in order to achieve both the repatriation of the refugees and the broader goal of peace and reconciliation in Cambodia, gaining the cooperation of the Khmer Rouge was essential, and he set out to win it. Few outsiders had dared to venture into Khmer territory, but Vieira de Mello intrepidly undertook the journey, at one point having to get out of his vehicle and wade across a river. On his arrival, he was cordially received by Khmer leaders. On a subsequent visit, he was treated to a sumptuous lunch by Ieng Sary, the group’s best-known leader after Pol Pot. Over French wines and filet mignon, Vieira de Mello–studiously avoiding any mention of the Communists’ past crimes–sought to convince him that his group could remain a significant player in Cambodia if it cooperated with the UN. Ieng Sary came to feel such regard for Vieira de Mello that he sent him a New Year’s card.
Such chumminess appalled many of Vieira de Mello’s colleagues. By lunching with these butchers, they felt, Vieira de Mello was helping to legitimate them. Dennis McNamara, one of Vieira de Mello’s closest colleagues at UNHCR, heatedly told him that it would be madness to let civilians return to land controlled by mass murderers. The British journalist William Shawcross teased him that his eventual autobiography should be titled My Friends, the War Criminals. In the end, however, the repatriation effort went off smoothly, with 362,209 refugees returning to Cambodia; only one death was recorded, and that in a bus accident. That achievement greatly enhanced Vieira de Mello’s reputation in the international community. This raises some obvious questions: Was Vieira de Mello’s decision to deal with the Khmer Rouge justified? Did the devil’s bargain he struck pay off? Power never says. Despite devoting sixty highly detailed pages to Vieira de Mello’s Cambodian sojourn, she refrains from offering any overall assessment of his actions.
She is less equivocal in describing Vieira de Mello’s next posting, to Bosnia. When he arrived in Sarajevo in 1993, the city was under siege from Serb snipers and shells. Eager to persuade the Serbs to let relief supplies through, Vieira de Mello set out to engage Serb leaders, especially Radovan Karadzic, an architect of the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims. Before the war, Vieira de Mello knew, Karadzic had worked as a psychiatrist. Before one of their meetings, Vieira de Mello picked up a copy of The New York Review of Books that had a long article in it about psychiatry; at the meeting, he presented it to Karadzic as a gift. In their discussions, Karadzic would go on endlessly about Serb grievances dating back to the fourteenth century. With his friends, Vieira de Mello vented his irritation, but with the man himself he remained studiously silent lest he lose his confidence.
The Serbs did let some supplies through, but their gunners kept pounding the city. Some UN officials wanted the peacekeepers to take a firmer stand and challenge the Serbs militarily. Vieira de Mello adamantly opposed such a course, maintaining that it would violate the UN’s neutrality and thus harm its broader humanitarian goals. “Impartiality was so central to his understanding of the essence of UN peacekeeping,” Power writes, “that he refused journalists’ requests to state which party bore the greatest responsibility for the carnage.” In the face of such passivity, The Economist labeled the UN “an armour-plated meals-on-wheels service”; others accused it of “passing out sandwiches at the gates of Auschwitz.”
While in Sarajevo, Vieira de Mello did engage in one highly courageous act, organizing a clandestine UN convoy to transport Bosnian civilians past Serb checkpoints to the airport and out of the city; in this way, 298 people, including a delegation of Bosnian athletes and the Roman Catholic archbishop, were ferried out. Pleased with Vieira de Mello’s performance, the UN assigned him to the UN peacekeeping headquarters in Zagreb; there, he supervised a team of fifty political analysts. Throughout, the mission hewed to a policy of strict neutrality. The general in charge, Sir Michael Rose, actually came to identify more with the professional Serb soldiers than with the ragtag Bosnian force; Sarajevo, he fatuously insisted, was not technically under siege. Vieira de Mello refused to challenge him on this or similar claims. When, after the Sarajevo marketplace massacre of February 5, 1994, the Clinton Administration threatened to unleash NATO airstrikes against the Serb forces, Vieira de Mello vigorously opposed them. “No matter how aggressive the Serbs became,” Power observes, “Vieira de Mello clung to the belief that full-on NATO air strikes were not compatible with UN neutrality, and that UN neutrality was the cornerstone of the UN system…. It never seemed to dawn on him that he might help shape the views of governments from within the system.”
Vieira de Mello’s ability to charm was so great, Power writes, that each of the factions in the war came to believe he was on its side. But, she observes,
during a bloody and morally fraught conflict in which the Serb side committed the bulk of the atrocities, his popularity with wrongdoers stemmed in part from his moral relativism. Even though he was unfailingly kind to Bosnian individuals, he had lost sight of the big picture. He seemed more interested in being liked and in maintaining access than in standing up for those who were suffering.
In light of Vieira de Mello’s coziness with the Serbs, some of his UN colleagues came up with a nickname for him: Serbio.
Power’s chapter on Vieira de Mello’s time in Bosnia (which is based on her eyewitness research) is devastating, and after reading it I fully expected her to draw the obvious conclusion–that his vaunted pragmatism too often degenerated into simple amorality. But this she refuses to do. Clinging to her image of him as an exemplar of diplomacy and multilateralism, she instead chooses to stress how much he learned from his and the UN’s mistakes in Bosnia. Upon hearing of the slaughter at Srebrenica, she notes, Vieira de Mello expressed shock and–finally seeing the light–embraced NATO intervention (outside the UN structure) as the only way out of the morass.
A new, more principled Sergio seems about to emerge. Yet when faced with his next great crisis–the flood of refugees from Rwanda after the genocide–the old Sergio quickly returns. His main stage this time was Tanzania, where more than half a million Rwandans had fled. After more than two years of accommodating them and putting up with the violence, theft and deforestation associated with their presence, the Tanzanian government announced its intention of closing the camps and sending the Rwandans home. Vieira de Mello, as UNHCR’s representative, was sent to Dar-es-Salaam to negotiate a plan with the government. Some within UNHCR expressed fears that, with many Rwandans reluctant to return home, the Tanzanians would resort to force in expelling them. UNHCR had some leverage, for the Tanzanians wanted the agency to fund the operation. In his discussions with the Tanzanians, Vieira de Mello initially asked for assurances that coercion would not be used, but when the Tanzanians rejected this and asserted their right to send security forces into the camps, he quickly gave in. The refugees, he was convinced, would not budge without being subjected to some degree of coercion, and in any case it seemed clear that the Tanzanians were determined to move ahead with or without UNHCR’s approval. Nonetheless, his deputy Martin Griffiths, who was present at the meeting, was shocked at how quickly Vieira de Mello acceded to the Tanzanians’ terms.
In practice, the expulsion turned out to be very violent, with many Rwandans subjected to beatings, bribes, strip-searches and in some cases rape. Throughout, UNHCR and Vieira de Mello–afraid of jeopardizing their relationship with the Tanzanian government–remained silent. Human rights advocates were livid. “UNHCR may not have been able to stop the repatriation,” one of them told Power, “but it should have made clear it opposed it, and it should have publicized what Tanzania was planning.” Power again cites Vieira de Mello’s UNHCR colleague Dennis McNamara. The problem with Sergio, he says, is that he “wanted to be friends with everyone.” When forced to choose between governments, on the one hand, and human rights advocates, on the other, Sergio “sided with power.”
This seems an utterly damning assessment. Yet once again, Power seeks to soften it. To nonexperts, she writes, “humanitarian action and human rights sounded like synonyms or, at the very least, complements.” But in the real world, she goes on, Vieira de Mello knew that “feeding people was often incompatible with speaking out.” This seems very odd, coming as it does from the author of “A Problem From Hell”, where speaking out and alerting the world to mass criminal behavior was defined as the very essence of humanitarianism. Taking such a position here, however, would force Power to acknowledge more fully her protagonist’s less heroic side, and this she seems reluctant to do.
Interestingly, when Vieira de Mello does perform admirably, it’s usually because he’s willing to jettison his pragmatism and act on principle. A striking example occurred during the war in Kosovo. In May 1999, six weeks after NATO began its bombing campaign, Vieira de Mello volunteered to lead a UN team into Serbia and Kosovo to assess the situation on the ground. The Clinton Administration–worried that the mission would see the damage caused by NATO’s bombs without getting an accurate picture of the bloodshed caused by the Serbs in Kosovo–was furious. So were the Serbs, who worried that the mission would get a firsthand look at the crimes they had committed in the province. Resisting pressure from both sides, Vieira de Mello and his team covered 1,900 miles in eleven days, traveling in a fleet of ten white Toyota 4Runners marked with the UN logo in black so that NATO planes would not strike them. Storming into ethnic Albanian homes for proof of war crimes, Vieira de Mello “bore little resemblance to the man known as a master diplomat with insufficient regard for human rights,” Power writes. His actions, she adds, seemed to mark a resurrection in him of
the uncompromising righteousness that he had not displayed since his days in Lebanon. If he had once believed that his job was to carry out the aggregate will of powerful governments, he now acted as though he believed that promoting UN principles and protecting the UN flag entailed standing firmly for the advancement of human dignity, even if that required acting in defiance of those governments.
After leaving Kosovo, Vieira de Mello, at a press conference in Montenegro, presented his findings of Serb abuses; later, appearing before the UN Security Council, he described the destruction caused by NATO’s bombs. Through these dual performances, he showed that meeting the UN’s humanitarian responsibilities often required not cultivating the powerful but standing up to them.
After serving for two and a half years as the chief administrator of the newly independent East Timor, Vieira de Mello was named the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in September 2002. This displeased many human rights advocates, for in their view he had shown little concern for this issue throughout his career. They further worried that his personal ambitions–he was widely believed to want Kofi Annan’s job–would make him reluctant to alienate governments. In any case, his time in that position would soon be overtaken by Iraq. The war there would present Vieira de Mello with his greatest test. Which Sergio would it be: the pliable pragmatist or the uncompromising humanitarian?
The answer was not long in coming. In principle, Vieira de Mello was not opposed to the war. Saddam Hussein’s regime had spilled so much blood that he would have been happy to see it ousted. But he doubted that George Bush and his advisers had much genuine regard for the Iraqi people, and he was further put off by the Administration’s flouting of the Security Council, so he opposed the invasion. In typical fashion, however, he refused to say so publicly. When Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, asked him to join in rallying the heads of UN agencies to oppose the war, he declined. In early March 2003, he was invited to meet with Bush at the White House. The meeting was arranged by a former colleague of Vieira de Mello’s who was now working for the National Security Council and who wanted the President to see “the most appealing face of the United Nations.” During the meeting, Vieira de Mello criticized US policies in Guantánamo, but he was so charming that Bush “took a visible liking to him,” and the meeting went on for twice as long as had been scheduled. At the UN, many felt Vieira de Mello was angling for a job in Iraq after the war. Vieira de Mello laughed off such suggestions, but when Annan–seeking to ingratiate himself with the Americans–decided to re-establish a UN presence in Iraq soon after the invasion, he named Vieira de Mello to head it. “America’s pick” is how many UN staffers saw it.
Arriving in Baghdad, in June 2003, Vieira de Mello did show some signs of independence. Intent on staying in touch with the Iraqi “street,” he decided to locate his mission not in the Green Zone but in a former hotel that was easily accessible to Iraqis. In his first six weeks on the job, he met with an array of Iraqi religious, political and civic leaders. Throughout, however, he sought to stay on good terms with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and its head, Paul Bremer. He and Bremer quickly hit it off. Both were “handsome, charismatic, hyperachieving workaholics who knew how to take charge,” Power writes. “Although Bremer had close ties to the neoconservatives, who were known for their anti-UN fervor, Vieira de Mello believed that Bremer was cut from a different cloth because he spoke French, Dutch and Norwegian. This gift for languages testified to a curiosity and a breadth of perspective that he did not often find among Americans.”
Aware of the toll the US occupation was taking on Iraqi morale, Vieira de Mello sought to serve as an intermediary between Bremer and Iraqi leaders. Some of his staff, however, felt he was getting too close to the Americans. “Sergio,” a political aide told him, “don’t you see, you’re not changing the Americans. You are helping the Americans.” When Bremer moved to set up an Iraqi Governing Council, Vieira de Mello, eager to contribute, provided the names of potential members, several of whom were selected. Once the council was constituted, however, Bremer–no longer needing Vieira de Mello’s services–cut him off. The council was dismissed by most Iraqis as a fig leaf for the Americans. Feeling invested in it, however, Vieira de Mello set off on a whirlwind tour of the Middle East to sell it.
During this period, the number of Iraqis killed by US forces steadily rose, and the rage of the Iraqi people mounted along with it. As the UN’s top official in Iraq, Vieira de Mello was in a good position to publicize such incidents and demand that they be investigated. But–intent on staying on good terms with the Americans–he refrained from doing so. When an attack led by the US-led coalition in the Sunni Triangle left an 8-year-old boy and his mother dead, Marwan Ali, a Palestinian political officer with the mission, pressed Vieira de Mello to issue a statement of protest. On August 18, 2003, Vieira de Mello gave his consent. The statement would be the first-ever public UN condemnation of a coalition human rights violation.
It would never get released, however, for the next afternoon a truck bomb packed with 1,000 pounds of explosives detonated on the street just below Vieira de Mello’s office. Buried in the rubble, he remained alive for several hours. Power’s description of the attack and its horrific aftermath, including the poorly executed and ultimately futile effort to rescue Vieira de Mello, is a tour de force of writing and reporting, capturing with dramatic intensity the awful scale of the tragedy. Power further conveys the growing awareness among UN staff members of the deep flaws in their mission. The UN, they believed, had failed to appreciate how hated it had become in Iraq, “owing to sanctions, weapons inspections, and (thanks to Vieira de Mello’s high-profile intermediary role) its association with the Governing Council.”
The staff grew even more demoralized when Kofi Annan announced that the UN would maintain a presence in Iraq despite the lethal dangers it faced. As Power notes, at no time did Annan or his staff delve into the really pressing questions raised by the tragedy:
Why had Annan so eagerly accepted the Security Council’s summons to go to Iraq? Why did he send his finest staff to enforce an almost nonexistent mandate? Why, after the attack, had he chosen to keep UN staff in harm’s way, even though they were not performing vital tasks? What would it take for the UN secretary-general, in fact, to learn to say no to powerful countries?
This last question, it seems to me, goes to the heart of Chasing the Flame. Of the UN’s many faults, some seem an inevitable byproduct of the way the organization is structured. As a child of its member states, the UN cannot help but reflect their narrow self-interests as well as the divisions among them. It’s further to be expected that those states with the most power and resources will have a disproportionate say in its affairs. At the same time, the UN as an institution has its own set of ideals–consultation, coexistence, human rights–that are supposed to guide it apart from the desires of its member states. The UN’s behavior in the lead-up to the Iraq War provided a stirring example of this. The debate in the Security Council over whether to authorize the use of force against Iraq, together with the impressive performance of the UN weapons inspectors, showed that the UN can stick to its principles even in the face of extreme pressure from its most powerful member.
Similarly, Vieira de Mello seemed at his best when, as in Kosovo, he stood up for those principles in the face of strong pressures to do otherwise. Unfortunately, such occurrences were rare in his career. Far more frequently, he sought to court the powerful. Drinking beer with Ieng Sary, presenting Radovan Karadzic with a copy of The New York Review of Books, cultivating Paul Bremer and the CPA, this onetime student revolutionary seemed to become over the course of his career a serial appeaser, passing up one opportunity after another to expose, protest and condemn the crimes being perpetrated around him.
Samantha Power does in places take note of this. “Senior officials, including himself,” she writes, “were often so eager to tell the major powers what they wanted to hear that they had covered up deadly facts or exaggerated their own successes.” For the most part, however, she finds Vieira de Mello’s actions praiseworthy. He “made mistakes and delivered few unvarnished successes that could be guaranteed to last,” she observes, but “as long as he was around–treating the most intractable conflicts as if peace were one phone call away, eschewing diplomatic hierarchy in the frantic pursuit of solutions, and remaining unflappable, impeccable, and seemingly untouchable while the shells rained down around him–a flame continued to flicker somewhere.” Power urges the world community to take heed of the key lessons of Vieira de Mello’s career. Among them: legitimacy “matters”; spoilers and rogue states “must be engaged”; fearful people “must be made more secure”; “dignity” must be made “the cornerstone of order.”
Unfortunately, these lessons seem banal. Missing from Power’s list are what seem to be the true lessons of Vieira de Mello’s life: abuses must be denounced, mass murderers must be confronted, perpetrators must be held accountable. Needless to say, one must find practical ways of applying these principles; in the end, though, it’s the principles that must lead the way. It was ideals such as these that drove Raphael Lemkin and the other crusaders of Power’s first book. Of them she wrote: “They saw something that haunted them, that turned the daily press accounts [of atrocities] into vibrant cries from the grave, cries that broke through the cordon sanitaire that deflects unwelcome news.” These “screamers,” as she called them, “treated silence as if it were a further crime against humanity.” For most of his career, Vieira de Mello remained silent.
One of the most revealing moments in Chasing the Flame comes in the introduction, where Power describes that initial meeting with Vieira de Mello at the restaurant in Zagreb. Toward the end of the meal, Vieira de Mello reaches into the breast pocket of his elegantly tailored blazer and pulls out a battered piece of paper. It contains the section of the Security Council resolution on the Balkans that set up the six “safe areas” in the region, the only formal instructions that Vieira de Mello and his fellow peacekeepers ever received. Vieira de Mello directs Power’s attention to a set of commas in the text. “Look at this,” he says heatedly. “The resolution says we should ‘comma–acting in self-defense–comma–take the necessary measures–comma–including the use of force’ to respond to attacks against civilians!” The vagueness of this infuriated him: “What are the commas supposed to mean? Does it mean the UN should only use force in self-defense? Or does it mean we should use force in self-defense and also to protect the Bosnians?” To devote so much energy and attention to a few ambiguous marks of punctuation while defenseless civilians were being slaughtered all around him seems the height of bureaucratic futility.
The great question Chasing the Flame left me with is, Why? Why has Power so fervently embraced a man who seems to represent everything she so decisively rejected in her first book? Reading this one, I got the sense that Power, having set out to write a hero’s life, became so heavily invested in such a narrative that she was unable to change course even when her reporting strongly suggested otherwise. But clearly something deeper is going on here, having to do with Power’s own intellectual journey. In her first book, she was so taken with the idea of America as the guardian of moral behavior in the world that she failed to take adequate account of America’s long history of misbehavior. Now, looking to the UN as the great protector, she has failed to appreciate its long record of passivity and complicity in the face of atrocity. Perhaps in her next book she’ll arrive at a more satisfying synthesis.
To do that, however, she’ll have to resolve the competing forces tugging at her professional life. Just as Vieira de Mello made the journey from student revolutionary to senior diplomat, so has Samantha Power gone from being an independent critic working outside the system to being a high-profile figure operating within it. Her book’s odd shifts in tone and frustrating gaps in analysis reflect, I think, the ambivalence she feels about making that transition. In grappling with the many compromises Vieira de Mello made in the course of his career, Power may be unconsciously wrestling with the accommodations she’s been forced to make as she’s traveled the perilous path from obscurity to celebrity, from being an outside analyst assessing those in power to being one of the powerful herself.