When U.N. peacekeepers take over the Haiti mission from the United States in six months or so, the most powerful foreign official in Haiti will be an ascetic-looking, soft-spoken Algerian who has become Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's favorite trouble-shooter.
As Boutros-Ghali's new special representative for Haiti, 60-year-old Lakhdhar Brahimi has a title that sounds innocuous. But his is the single most important post in any U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, will be in charge of the entire operation, with the authority even to veto decisions by the military commander of the 6,000 troops in the U.N. mission.
In a little more than a year, Brahimi, who is not a regular U.N. bureaucrat, has served Boutros-Ghali as a special envoy or special representative to Zaire, South Africa, Yemen and Liberia. Although his work is completed only in South Africa, Brahimi will give up all other duties and devote himself entirely to Haiti.
American officials worked with him closely in Zaire as he tried to mediate a bitter political conflict that was pushing the country close to chaos. His work draws high praise from U.S. diplomats.
"Brahimi had a significant impact in getting the parties together," said an admiring U.S. official.
The only complaint from the Americans was that Boutros-Ghali, in their view, sent Brahimi off to other trouble spots too soon.
The appointment of Brahimi signifies a reversal of policy for Boutros-Ghali in organizing a U.N. mission that will take over from the American-run mission.
In Somalia, the only precedent, Boutros-Ghali gave in to American pressure and appointed an American as special representative--retired Adm. Jonathan Howe, personally selected for the job by U.S. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake.
When the Somalia mission turned into a debacle, officials in Washington put all the blame on Boutros-Ghali, even though he had given Howe full rein to run things in Mogadishu. In Haiti, Boutros-Ghali has clearly put his own man in charge.
According to U.N. sources, the Clinton Administration is pressuring the secretary general to put an American commander in charge of the military force. U.S. troops are expected to make up half the total force.
Boutros-Ghali, according to these same sources, was strongly against this several weeks ago because he did not want the U.N. peacekeeping mission to be confused with any American military operation that invaded Haiti forcibly.
Now that Americans have landed in Haiti peacefully, the sources said, Boutros-Ghali is more amenable to the idea of naming an American military commander.
Brahimi is looked on as a leading practitioner of what the U.N. calls "preventive diplomacy"--the art of negotiating a settlement before a conflict breaks out rather than afterward. Perhaps that is why he is so little known in the United States. He is not a high-profile U.N. official.
"Diplomacy is at its very, very best in preventive diplomacy," Brahimi said in a recent interview. "The best that can happen to you is that no one notices what you do. And since nobody sees anything, why should anyone say thank you? When a problem appears, then you have failed."
Brahimi has had a long and distinguished diplomatic career. He served as Algeria's foreign minister from 1991 to 1993 and began his diplomatic work, in fact, during the Algerian war of independence, acting as the ambassador to Southeast Asia of the National Liberation Front from 1956 to 1961.
Later, the newly independent Algerian government named him ambassador to Egypt and then to Britain. From 1981 to 1984, he was the diplomatic adviser to Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid. From 1984 to 1991, he was the undersecretary general of the League of Arab States.
Boutros-Ghali named him special envoy to Zaire in July, 1993; special representative to South Africa in December, 1993; special envoy to Yemen in June, 1994, and a special envoy to Liberia in July, 1994.
In dealing with the problems in many countries where he served, Brahimi said he faced limitations.
"All you have is your personal skill and some moral authority," he said. "I have no money and no army."