Samantha Power on Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 25 2008 4:13 PM

Dangerous Places

What Sergio Vieira de Mello learned at the U.N.

(Continued from Page 1)

But the biggest difficulty, or so my reading of Chasing the Flame leads me to suppose, is a problem of the imagination. A philosophical issue. It's the same problem that keeps popping up in Power's earlier book as well: an inability to imagine why some people might set out to destroy whole populations. Vieira de Mello participated in U.N. missions that followed any of several logics—the logic of peacekeeping, or of establishing safe havens for the persecuted, or of providing humanitarian aid. But each of those logics presumes that if horrific conflicts have broken out, it is because otherwise reasonable people have fallen into misunderstandings and a neutral broker like the U.N. might usefully intercede. Yet conflicts sometimes break out because one or another popular political movement has arrived at a sincere belief in the virtue of exterminating its enemies, and horrific ideologies lie at the origin. Neutral mediations in a case like that are bound only to obscure the reality—which has happened several times over, as Power usefully demonstrates.

The repeated failures and frustrations ultimately led Vieira de Mello to contemplate something more vigorous—a policy of enforcing human rights, drawing on the strength of powerful countries, and sometimes choosing to violate openly the sovereign borders of some benighted nation. NATO did this by bombing Serbia in 1999 (which Vieira de Mello opposed at first, later changing his mind), and Australia did the same thing with U.N. blessings in East Timor (which Vieira de Mello regarded from the start as the right thing to do under the circumstances). But he never seems to have entirely disentangled the several strands of those militant new ideas from the ancient U.N. instinct for strict neutrality, which, to my eyes, leaves his new ideas less than clear. What should we conclude, then? The right way to defend the extremely oppressed, if any such way exists—what could it be? President Bush's alternative to the U.N., his "Bush doctrine"—which I take to be a benignly intended but knuckleheaded American nationalism, militarily oriented, joined to a wan libertarian faith in creative chaos and free markets—has already assumed its own distinctive place in the history of disastrous attempts to resist catastrophic disasters. One more negative lesson, on top of all the others. Which leaves us where?

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Vieira de Mello did acquire a set of fingertip practical precepts, and Power is at pains to pass these along. He believed that in any disaster zone, civilian security must first of all be guaranteed. He believed that whenever foreign forces intervene, local people ought to be accorded their dignity. He believed in studying the local language. He also believed in the usefulness of talking to the bad guys, whoever they might be—though Power shows that more than once (in Cambodia, talking to the Khmer Rouge, and in Serbia, talking to the worst of the Serbian nationalists), this final precept, with its residual odor of U.N. neutrality, led him astray.

I wish that she had devoted a few of those 600 pages to Bernard Kouchner, who is today the foreign minister of France but who, in the past, pursued a parallel and rival career to Vieira de Mello's, working for humanitarian organizations and sometimes even for the U.N. Kouchner has paid repeated homage to Vieira de Mello's bravery and idealism, and has done so not just in print but in person, traveling to Baghdad last August, on the anniversary of the al-Qaida attack—the first high French official to set foot in post-Saddam Iraq, a historic gesture. Yet Kouchner has also proposed a more radical criticism of the old neutralist ethic than anything Vieira de Mello ever entertained—an argument for something much more forceful, perhaps a step toward building a world government in the distant future on a foundation of human rights and at least minimal social services. Something visionary. It was Kouchner, more than anyone else, who laid out the political theory known at the U.N. as "the responsibility to protect"—the doctrine that ultimately came into play in the Kosovo war and in East Timor and that, in Kouchner's thinking, ought to have led to similar U.N. action against Saddam. But this kind of theorizing goes beyond the scope of Power's biography.

Samantha Power has lately been offering foreign policy advice to Barack Obama, which gives her book something of the dramatic quality of a leaked memo, compiling do's and don'ts for any new American administration. I suppose that, among her do's and don'ts, Power herself would emphasize the fingertip wisdom that Vieira de Mello laboriously accumulated. But I see a larger observation lurking in her new book as well, humble and grave at the same time. Humble, because nearly a century after the Turkish massacre of Armenians, we had better recognize that, even now, nobody has come up with a reliable method of preventing anything similar from taking place in the days ahead. And grave, because by now we ought to have learned that mass slaughters and extreme oppression are perennial facts of modern life, and Sergio Vieira de Mello, with his flaws and heroism, represents us at our best and at our most helpless.

Paul Berman, a writer in residence at New York University, is the author of Power and the Idealists.