U.N.'s peace warrior

Times Staff Writer

Samantha Power wears a lot of hats these days -- journalist, human rights activist, professor of “global leadership” at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, author and policy advisor. The latter role is of particular interest, since she spent 2005 and 2006 working in Sen. Barack Obama’s office and still advises the Democratic presidential candidate on foreign policy issues. If there’s an Obama administration, she’s widely believed to be in line for a significant job.

Murky as the junior senator from Illinois can sometimes seem on the domestic details, public understanding of his foreign policy goals is just this side of a tabula rasa. Thus, Power’s new book, “Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World,” is of uncommon interest on several counts. The author is best known for her earlier work, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “ ‘A Problem From Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide,” a searing critique of U.S. policy toward mass murder with a particular focus on the reprehensible failures in Bosnia and Rwanda.

“Chasing the Flame” builds on that work by aspiring to two things: On the one hand, it is a deeply and impressively reported biography of the charismatic, widely admired Brazilian-born United Nations diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, who rose to become U.N. high commissioner for human rights before he was killed along with members of his staff by an Iraqi suicide bomber in 2003. Simultaneously, Power uses the narrative of the 55-year-old to chart the performance of the world’s premier international organization as peacemaker in a world afflicted with an ever-growing number of failing and failed states.

Less talk, more force


Vieira de Mello joined the U.N. bureaucracy as an ardent young Marxist philosopher fresh out of the Sorbonne, where he was very much a child of 1968. At the level at which Vieira de Mello would come to operate, the U.N.'s diplomatic corps is an odd combination of the Roman Curia and the early Soviet apparat.

In the former mode, the U.N.'s high-level civil servants operate like Curia members -- wielders of influence without responsibility, convinced that the intrinsic virtue of their vocation justifies even sordid compromises. In the latter mode, they have an irrepressible capacity to regard their endless series of failures simply as signposts on the road to an inevitably radiant future.

Vieira de Mello saw service through many of the past decades’ worst humanitarian and political situations -- Lebanon, Sudan, Congo, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo. Power’s brief is that the experience of the U.N.'s failure to protect the helpless and innocent in these places -- particularly Bosnia and East Timor -- led Vieira de Mello to lose faith in the U.N.'s belief that the hand of diplomacy (and diplomatic compromise) must be extended even to the killers. Gradually, according to Power, he came around to the idea that less talk and more force was required, although this conversion isn’t quite clear from the author’s narrative.

David Rieff has written more searchingly about international peacekeeping and humanitarian organizations than any other American journalist. He’s spent years of his life traversing the same blood-stained ground as Vieira de Mello and -- like Power -- watched the U.N. diplomat in action. In an essay published not long after the commissioner’s death in Iraq, Rieff wrote:


“Vieira de Mello apparently believed in the United Nations as it saw itself, the U.N. at its best -- poor in resources but rich in dedication; badly served by its member states, above all the most powerful among them, but nonetheless able, against all the odds, to bring savage wars to a speedier end while alleviating the suffering of the innocent victims of these conflicts; and offering hope and a bedrock of humanitarian principle in a world of power politics, ethnic conflict and Realpolitik.

“When Vieira de Mello was criticized, though, it was for being too much a devotee of Realpolitik. There was the charge that his quasi-religious commitment to the U.N.'s institutional survival made him a servant of the great powers despite himself, since the U.N. is powerless without them. If the U.N.'s viability would be aided by obliging the United States in the Congo, NATO in Kosovo or the coalition in postwar Iraq, Vieira de Mello often calculated those to be bargains worth making.”

‘Talking to everyone’

For all her obvious regard -- even affection -- for her subject, Power finds something of the same quality in Vieira de Mello’s dealings with some of his era’s most notorious killers:


“His highly practical mantra of ‘talking to everyone’ caused him lapses in judgment. Sharing French wine with Ieng Sary may have kept the Khmer Rouge engaged in Cambodia’s peace process longer than they otherwise might have been, but it also led him to pay too little attention to the atrocities they had committed. In Bosnia his sometimes obsequious deference to Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic brought few concessions at all. As he brought Karadzic the latest edition of The New York Review of Books or scoured the shops of Belgrade for the perfect gift for Milosevic, he lost sight of the fact that he had grown silent on matters of principle and oblivious to the ways extremists were exploiting his determined neutrality to advance their ends.

“But he grew on the job. The massacre in Srebrenica and the genocide in Rwanda seemed to jar him out of an earlier naivete. For the rest of his career, although he still engaged with thugs and killers, he was less prone to appease his interlocutors.”

Well, one has to suppose that’s something, though half an appeaser still is an appeaser. When the person being appeased is a Sary or Karadzic, the consequences are too obvious to belabor.

At another point, Power writes of Vieira de Mello: “If his ever-evolving approach could be summed up, it would be: Talk to rogues, attempt to understand what makes them tick, extract concessions from them whenever possible, but remain clear about who they are and what they have done, as well as what you stand for. Past sins mattered not just intrinsically but because they were predictive of future behaviors.”


Right, forewarned is forearmed -- assuming you’re prepared to do something.

Vieira de Mello’s alleged transformation notwithstanding, Power concedes that the U.N. has “a knack for ‘killing the flame’ -- the flame of idealism that motivated many to strive to combat injustice and that inspired the vulnerable to believe that help would soon come.”

Worse, its bureaucrats’ unshakable belief in an entitlement flowing from their sense of superiority to the U.N.'s member states and from their inherent virtue as the only real servants of that flame has obstructed a real discussion of how the nations willing to put boots and guns on the ground might actually fulfill their human obligation to defend the innocent.