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.

Samantha Power's Chasing the Flame

Samantha Power has now written two fat and valuable tomes on a single theme, which is the effort launched by various lonely and heroic individuals over the last hundred years to identify and name acts of mass slaughter and other grand-scale crimes, to arouse the indignation of the world, and to rescue the victims. Her topic ought to be fairly simple, in principle—a story of people who, like the fire wardens in national parks, keep an eye out for smoke on the horizon, sound the alarm, and join the fire brigade when it belatedly arrives.

Yet genocides, unlike forest fires, tend to be invisible at first (except to the victims), which is weird to consider. The potential rescuers in faraway countries tend not to regard themselves as potential rescuers, and the entire process of trying to identify, denounce, and resolve the hugest of human calamities turns out to be filled, start to finish, with baffling and unexpected difficulties. Six years ago, in the first of her books, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Power described a series of mass slaughters, from the Turkish massacre of Armenians in the 1910s to the Serbian massacre of Balkan Muslims in the 1990s. She described the frustrated efforts of various high-minded American diplomats and other people to prod Washington, D.C., to respond. And she described Washington's ever-reliable impulse to remain lost in slumber for as long as possible—even if, under Bill Clinton, Washington did ultimately bestir itself, a few years too late and with insufficient vigor, to take not quite enough action in the Balkans.

Power was angry at what she described. She concluded her chapter on Saddam Hussein's massacre of the Iraqi Kurds by banging the table with a one-sentence indignant paragraph: "To this day, however, no Iraqi soldier or political leader has been punished for atrocities committed against the Kurds." And there you see, in Proudhon's phrase, the fecundity of the unpredictable. Power published that sentence in 2002. George W. Bush's error, a year later, was anything but a wishy-washy lack of resolve, and the whole conundrum has turned out to be knottier even than you would have surmised from the already knotty picture in the aptly titled A Problem From Hell.

Power's new book, Chasing the Flame, tells a roughly similar story—and at the same length, too, as if 600 pages were her natural stride—except that instead of writing about frustrated American diplomats trying to prod a sluggish American government, this time she describes one of the key personalities at the United Nations during the last few decades, until his death in 2003. This was Sergio Vieira de Mello, a dashing Brazilian with a French education and, therefore, with excellent left-wing credentials from the Paris student uprising of 1968. Vieira de Mello was too handsome for his own good and keenly ambitious in his professional life, which led to years of bureaucratic maneuvering and political chit-collecting at U.N. headquarters in Geneva and New York—biographical details on which Power lavishes a sometimes annoying degree of attention.

He was also, however, an impeccably serious man, authentically dedicated to the U.N. and especially to the goal of rescuing the utterly oppressed. He served in any number of hair-raising U.N. missions in Lebanon, Cambodia, Central Africa, the Balkans, and other places, always with courage, sometimes improvising in a spirit of buccaneer do-goodism; and, on these matters, the details are fascinating to read. The U.N. intervened in East Timor in 1999, courtesy of the Australian armed forces, and Vieira de Mello spent two-and-a-half years there as viceroy, administering as best he could. And then, after the invasion of Iraq, he was dispatched to Baghdad, where he was killed, together with 21 other people, in a suicide bombing—an attack by al-Qaida, as Power informs us (in the course of a painfully grisly and extended account of the man's last moments), intended partly to punish him for having performed his viceregal duties back in East Timor.

Vieira de Mello brought a lot of talent and wisdom to Iraq, which raises the question of whether—if only he had lived, and if only the haughty American pooh-bahs had deigned to heed the advice of a man with superior experience—he might have helped to bring about a better outcome there. But too many if onlys clutter that sentence. Anyway, he did leave behind a record of achievement—and the record, as Power lays it out, merely brings us face to face one more time with those quandaries that dominate her earlier book. How much success, after all, has the U.N. actually enjoyed over the years? Power describes one U.N. enterprise after another that proved to be fatally feeble or exacerbated an already bad situation or racked up humanitarian triumphs (Vieira de Mello did help bring 360,000 Cambodian refugees back to their homes) without providing for a long-term solution. What can explain this wobbly and dispiriting record? Vieira de Mello committed his share of blunders. Often the failures were owed to the same kind of obstacles that frustrated so many of the American diplomats in Power's earlier book—bureaucratic inanity, wavering will, a poverty of resources.

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?

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.