U.N. diplomats and officials--who couldn't believe the news at first--are now convinced that 71-year-old Boutros Boutros-Ghali is serious about seeking a second term as secretary general of the United Nations.
The decision is worrisome in Washington. A reelection bid by the moody, stubborn Egyptian diplomat could lead to a confrontation with the Clinton Administration. In fact, relations are so bad that U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright would probably veto his candidacy if the election were held in the Security Council today. But Boutros-Ghali is only midway through his five-year term, and American moods may change by the time the council votes at the end of 1996.
The secretary general's announced intentions have also caused consternation among government officials, diplomats and others who were hoping that the Security Council would set up an orderly process next year for selecting a secretary general.
Since the United Nations will mark its 50th anniversary in 1995, they suggest, the celebrations could put everyone in a mood for exploring ideas to improve the world body--including agreement on a more rational way of selecting candidates for the top job.
"But it's very hard to do that when you have an incumbent who has indicated several years in advance that he wants to continue in office," said Edward Luck, president of the U.N. Assn., a private organization. "It puts a damper on the process. What better time than the 50th anniversary to have a serious discussion of the office of the secretary general. But we are not going to get it because people don't want to offend the incumbent."
In the past, ambassadors to the Security Council, which selects the secretary general and then submits the nominee to the General Assembly for predictably automatic approval, have often fretted over a choice until the last minute. An array of candidates, often obscure, are put forward by their governments or, sometimes, self-nominated. The Security Council ambassadors know little if anything of many candidates.
In the last election, President George Bush, rebuffed over his first choice, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, was still looking for another candidate when the Security Council settled on Boutros-Ghali.
When the Security Council picked him in late 1991, Boutros-Ghali told everyone that, unlike his five predecessors, he would leave office after one term. All the others stood successfully for a second term.
The Egyptian's single-term pledge allowed him to brandish his independence. He did not have to kowtow to the United States and the other veto-powered governments just to win their support for a second term.
"It was one of the attractive things about him," said a European ambassador on the Security Council. "He could say, 'I'm not dependent on anyone, I don't have to work at the pleasure of others.' This was very effective."
But Boutros-Ghali startled a news conference in May by declaring that he might seek a second five-year term.
"The question will be raised in 1996," he said, "and it will depend on my physical capacities. If I am feeling in shape, quite honestly, I will say yes. On the other hand . . . if I don't feel well enough, then I won't request a second term." Asked what had prompted him to change his mind, the secretary general replied, "I believe that only stupid people don't change their mind."
Some diplomats at first thought this must be a ploy. Boutros-Ghali, they reasoned, did not want to be treated as a lame duck in his last 2 1/2 years on the job.
But the word soon spread from his offices on the 38th floor of the secretariat that the secretary general was serious about reelection.
"He has put his health as a shield before him," another European ambassador said. "If he is not sure of being reelected, he can always bring up his health and say he is not up to running again. He is using his health as a face-saving device, and, to me, that means he's serious."
Except for a bout of knee trouble--attributed to gout--late last year, the frail-looking Boutros-Ghali has not been slowed by any illness in his first 30 months on the job. But the secretary general is known as a workaholic who has little time for socializing.
"I have seen not one single theater, not one single movie, not one single orchestra in my 2 1/2 years in New York," he said recently. "I am a monk." Some diplomats wonder if he can keep up the same pace when he is in his mid-70s.
After Boutros-Ghali told the news conference that he might seek a second term, James P. Rubin, Ambassador Albright's press attache, spoke carefully when questioned by reporters.
"Secretary General Boutros-Ghali has had a challenging job of moving the United Nations into the post-Cold War period," he said. "We have worked closely with him and will continue to do so during the remaining 2 1/2 years of his current term. He has not formally announced his candidacy for a second term."
The polite, noncommittal words, however, hid a seething reality.
American officials have fought with Boutros-Ghali over policies on Somalia, Israel, Rwanda, Haiti and other issues. They believe that Boutros-Ghali has tried to wield an executive power to which he has no right. Some insist that the Clinton Administration will veto his candidacy if he dares to seek reelection.
Boutros-Ghali shrugs off this kind of talk. Another confrontation with the U.S. government does not frighten him.
Some analysts, in fact, believe Boutros-Ghali has already assured himself renewed support from France, one of his original sponsors, for his support of the French intervention in Rwanda. In a similar way, an ambassador pointed out recently, he might put all his prestige behind an American intervention in Haiti, a move that could change some American minds about him.
But the secretary general is a stubborn man who does not intend to lose his independence--even if he does run again.