IT WAS A sultry Saturday afternoon, and Boutros Boutros-Ghali was enjoying a rare lunch in the garden of his exquisite townhouse overlooking the East River. It looked serene, but it wasn't; indeed, if "frustration" could have another name these days, that name would be "Boutros."
In several hours of intense conversation -- with some humorous moments -- the U.N. secretary-general showed clearly the main current of his thinking. Indeed, he returned again and again to one point.
"Either you fight or you negotiate," he said. "If there is no political will to fight, then what can you do? If nobody wants a war, then we have to negotiate."
Later, we sat in the coolness of the beautiful antique-filled home he shares with his attractive wife, Leia. I asked him if the U.N.'s "neutralist" policies were not paradoxically providing the Serbs with the courage to go on.
"All right," he said, "the Serbs are the aggressors! Then, punish them, like the Iraqis. I receive instructions from the Security Council.
"And so we have only three options: Use force, negotiate or pull out. I'm saying, I want to negotiate because I believe that, even if the chances of success are limited, negotiating is less dangerous than the other possibilities."
Several times during the interesting afternoon, while by his own admission the fate of the United Nations in Bosnia hung in the balance, he stressed -- rightly, I might add -- one point. This was that the members of the Security Council, in which the United States has a veto, are the ones who have approved resolution after resolution giving the United Nations the responsibilities it has in Bosnia. Yet, for all the talk of "enforcement" (United Nationese for fighting), when it comes down to it, none of them want to do it!
And he is left with only a few cards to play.
At times, this usually super-diplomatic man, who weighs every word, mused about his own feelings, revealing himself in ways he habitually avoids.
Why did the United Nations go ahead with the airstrike, if it knew, as he now says, that hostages would be taken? "We were put under such pressure," he stated. "You have to do it . . . you have to. I said, 'No, it will be a disaster.' "
A possible withdrawal of U.N. troops from Bosnia, then? He smiled weakly. "Here, the egos of the member states come in," he said. "Withdrawal means defeat."
Have the Serbs won, then? Worse, has the U.N. helped them to win? The secretary-general became somewhat impassioned at these questions. "You might say that, in Bosnia, the Serbs have won," he averred. "But if you take all of Yugoslavia, they have lost. They were the leading group in a country that had Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia. . . . They lost everything. So if you want to put everything on a balance, they are the losers. It all depends upon your parameters."
And the negatives of Bosnia for the United Nations? "A great price is our credibility," he said. "Maybe a short surgical operation would be better than people suffering for two or three years. Also on the negative side, both are preparing for an escalation during this period of intermezzo, of transition. But, again, if I put it all on a balance, negative and positive, I'd still say negotiating was best."
Several times in our conversation, Boutros Boutros-Ghali left the disasters all around him and found time to laugh at himself. "Wherever I go, there are anti-secretary-general demonstrations," he said, laughing heartily at the absurdity of life. "In Sydney, I was attacked. . . . In Salvador, bombs were going off. . . . The French press accuses me of being defeatist. The fundamentalists in Cairo gave a list of people they would hang, but they would judge them first. I was the only one on the list who wasn't to be judged!
"Some apparently have an image of your humble servant being hanged in the U.N. Plaza!"
Finally, I asked whether -- with the U.N. itself now virtually a hostage of the Serbs in Bosnia -- negotiations still could work? He avowed that they could. "Through negotiating, you discover the way," he said. "The Serbs want negotiations in order to get consecration of what they have, to obtain recognition of the international community. They know they are sick -- that is why they accepted the negotiations. You have this all over the world: People who have gained on the ground but have no international recognition.
"The result of the negotiations may not be equity, but it may be peace. Then you have a problem: What is more important, peace or peace at the expense of certain principles of equity? My theory is that what happens in a war is so terrible that peace is better, even if it is not a just peace."
The secretary-general delineated his idea about "wars of the rich" and "wars of the poor," which doubtless comes from his earlier diplomatic work for Egypt, particularly in now largely forgotten Africa.
"You are rich when people pay attention to you, and you are poor when nobody pays attention to you," he said. "In Bosnia, despite the suffering, people outside are paying attention. . . . But there are also 'orphan nations' in wars . . . in the 'poor wars' which don't attract the attention of the international community. My ambition is to pay attention to the marginalized."
Finally, I asked him what the U.N. had learned in Bosnia, which he agrees has, for better or for worse, become the paradigm of international action in the post-Cold War period.
"What we have learned is that Bosnia has created a distortion in the work of the U.N. We are paying less attention to what is going on in Burundi, in Georgia. . . . There are distortions in dealing with other peacekeeping operations, with other activities of the U.N. Seventy percent of our activities deal with economic development, with human rights, with democratization."
He seemed to consider what would happen if the United Nations did pull out of Bosnia. "Who is paying attention in the press today to Somalia?" he said. "Nobody! And it was in the headlines for months. In six months, nobody would talk about Yugoslavia . . . and they would continue killing themselves for years."
Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.