WASHINGTON -- For some reason, Boutros Boutros-Ghali just doesn't get it.
If the biggest contributor to your paycheck -- and a superpower at that -- wanted you fired, you'd most likely accept the world's praise for distinguished service and retire quietly.
But the United Nations secretary-general, 73, refuses to hang up his pinstripes. A bureaucratic survivor with what one colleague calls "the skin of a turtle," he treats the threat to veto his re-election as just a transitory whim.
"He is confident he can serve the international community for a second term," said a spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi. Indeed, in a display of bravado, he plans to unveil his own package of U.N. reforms before his five-year term expires Dec. 31.
The standoff has silenced potential competitors for the secretary-general's job while increasing tension between the United States and his supporters, particularly in the developing world.
Unlike the U.S. election, the campaign for secretary-general won't be waged with attack ads or push polls, but with diplomatic cables and deals cut in hotel suites on the fringe of the fall U.N. General Assembly. Like the choice of the pope, it may go through multiple ballots behind closed doors before the U.N. Security Council settles on a victor.
"It's very likely that the serious business of selecting a candidate will be put off until quite late, and certainly after the U.S. elections," says John Tessitore, communications director at the United Nations Association-U.S.A.
While the rules are few, the traditions are rigid: Africa believes it has a right to a second term for a secretary-general from the continent. France insists on someone fluent in French. No one from the five permanent Security Council members or the NATO alliance need apply.
And the prize? Running one of the world's most vilified bureaucracies, standing on receiving lines to greet heads of state and government, constantly begging for money and telling the world's major powers, with ornate politeness, that their demands are unrealistic. The job pays $227,000 a year and comes with a driver and a townhouse overlooking New York's East River.
Boutros-Ghali, formerly an academic and Egypt's deputy prime minister for foreign affairs, originally promised to serve just one five-year term, which began in 1992. The Bush administration went along with the choice, partly to keep Egypt's support for the Middle East peace process.
His one-term pledge proved as durable as George Bush's "Read my lips." He has since said that it is impossible to complete the task of U.N. reform in that time.
Last spring, when Secretary of State Warren Christopher and mutual friend Cyrus Vance, tried to ease him into retirement by stretching his term to six years, the aristocratic Egyptian dug in his heels. He declared his intent to seek a second full term just as senior State Department officials were leaking their determination to oust him.
Boutros-Ghali personifies a romance gone sour between the United Nations and the Clinton administration. U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright, an advocate of "assertive multilateralism," initially backed the United Nations' nation-building efforts in Somalia. Then came the debacle in which 18 American servicemen died trying to capture Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid, the secretary-general's nemesis. The United States began a slow retreat from Somalia and a major rethinking of its policy toward the United Nations.
The following spring, the Security Council -- led by the United States -- rejected Boutros-Ghali's demand for an armed intervention in Rwanda early enough to stifle the tribal violence that eventually killed more than a half-million people.
American anger simmered through the to-ing and fro-ing in Yugoslavia of Boutros-Ghali's special envoy, Asushi Akashi, and boiled over when the United Nations repeatedly blocked air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs. In the past few months, Boutros-Ghali defied U.S. wishes by urging that NATO forces be sent into Eastern Slavonia, in the former Yugoslavia, and by blaming Israel for deliberately targeting civilians in the bombing of a refugee camp in Lebanon.
The secretary-general's Olympian manner has gotten under Albright's skin. At a meeting two summers ago, he enraged her by saying she was not adequately informing her own government about what was happening at the United Nations. They faced off again late last year, with the secretary-general calling her criticism of him "vulgar."
By then, the secretary-general had become political poison for the Clinton team. Unpopular with Congress, he is a favorite caricature for Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, who regales audiences by complaining that Clinton has surrendered U.S. foreign policy to the United Nations and -- here his voice lingers over the exotic name -- "Boutros Boutros-Ghali."
But Clinton's need to neutralize a campaign issue causes a number of diplomats and U.N. officials to suspect that after the U.S. election in November, Washington will find a way to reverse itself and support Boutros-Ghali for another term.
"I think there's a certain impression here that come November, the U.S. will look for a way out," said a U.N. diplomat. "Nobody really is very confident that they've heard the last word."
Christopher insists otherwise, telling Congress during a recent hearing that the decision is "irrevocable." And a leading Democrat on Capitol Hill, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton of Indiana, warned that as long as Boutros-Ghali is in charge, Congress will balk at catching up on its payments to the United Nations.
For both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, the ideal candidate would be a manager who would put reform uppermost; a consensus builder, not a super policy-maker, someone who also would spend some time making the United Nations' case with Congress.
"We don't need a president of the world. We need someone to run the U.N. bureaucracy," said John Bolton, the Bush administration State Department official who oversaw U.N. affairs.
Americans have worked well with Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian who studied in the United States and is now the United Nations' highly regarded peacekeeping chief, even though he is a 30-year veteran of the U.N. system.
They also praise Sadako Ogata, the Japanese scholar-diplomat who heads the United Nations' far-flung refugee agency. Neither is openly seeking the job.
But even credible candidates outside the United Nations are reluctant to declare themselves. These include Ireland's president, Mary Robinson; Sri Lanka's envoy to Washington, Jayantha Dhanapala; and Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.
No other country has openly sided with the United States on the need to replace Boutros-Ghali. Permanent members France, China and Russia all praise him warmly, and when U.S. officials pressed the Security Council to take up the question of replacement this month, five countries objected.
A big U.S. delegation strenuously lobbied the Organization of African Unity by phone last month only to be rebuffed by a resolution that declared Boutros-Ghali to be Africa's candidate.
Meanwhile, the standoff is taking its toll. "The whole U.N. is not really 100 percent able to work," said a European diplomat. The organization needs "an efficient, capable, concentrated secretary-general. This is not the case at the moment."
Pub Date: 8/19/96