Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an urbane Egyptian diplomat whose service as United Nations secretary general during the early 1990s coincided with genocides from Rwanda to the Balkans as well as political frictions that caused the Clinton administration to block him from a second term, died Feb. 16 at a hospital in Cairo. He was 93.
The U.N. Security Council announced the death. Egypt’s state-run newspaper al-Ahram said the cause was complications from a broken pelvis.
In an almost unprecedented display of very public strong-arming in an international forum, the United States, led by Madeleine K. Albright — then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations — defied the widespread support mustered by Mr. Boutros-Ghali in his 1996 bid for reelection and forced the 185 U.N. members to choose instead Washington’s hand-picked candidate, Kofi Annan of Ghana.
Although Mr. Boutros-Ghali had arrived at the United Nations as a distinguished, high-ranking diplomat from a country with close ties to the United States, he came to be perceived in Washington as a man who personified many of the fears and concerns directed against the United Nations by Republican conservatives.
As a result, the administration concluded that Mr. Boutros-Ghali had become a symbol of U.N. mismanagement in the eyes of many Americans and that his departure was necessary to defuse the possibility of the world body becoming an issue in President Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign.
Specifically, Mr. Boutros-Ghali was seen as insufficiently committed to the widespread financial and administrative reforms being demanded by GOP members of Congress as the price for paying sizable American dues owed to the United Nations.
He also was frequently at odds with the views of the administration and Congress about how to deal with such crises of the early and mid-1990s as the genocidal conflicts in the Balkans and Africa.
He would later call the 1994 ethnic massacres in Rwanda — when hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and Hutus were slaughtered and countless women raped — “my worst failure” at the U.N. He also laid blame on world leaders including Clinton for indecision and lack of resources to tackle daunting peacekeeping missions that had already spread U.N. soldiers across the globe.
The degree to which those tensions would roil the waters of the United Nations were not apparent when Mr. Boutros-Ghali was elected on Nov. 22, 1991, to serve a five-year term as the sixth U.N. secretary general.
With long experience at the top of his country’s diplomatic service and with wide contacts in both the industrialized and developing worlds, he benefited from Egypt’s position as an Arab country physically located on the northern periphery of Africa, which enabled him to be considered a candidate from the African bloc, the largest group within the U.N. membership.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali was born in Cairo on Nov. 14, 1922, and was a Coptic Christian belonging to a family with deep roots in Egypt’s old aristocracy.
He married an Egyptian Jew, Leia Maria Nadler, who is his only immediate survivor. After obtaining his law degree at Cairo University in 1946, he earned a doctorate in international law at the University of Paris in 1949. His experience in that city made him a lifelong lover of all things French — a trait that some critics believed would later add to his difficulties in getting along with the Americans because of his tendency to see things from a French perspective. It extended even to matters of language: Although his English was fluent, he frequently expressed it in French circumlocutions and grammatical constructions.
After returning to Egypt, he taught international law at Cairo University for nearly two decades, while churning out a dozen books on the subject. His entry onto the world stage came in November 1977, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his historic decision to fly to Israel.
When the anti-Israeli Egyptian foreign minister resigned in protest, Sadat put Mr. Boutros-Ghali in charge of the team that accompanied him to Jerusalem. Mr. Boutros-Ghali then led the Egyptian negotiations with Israel that prepared for the Camp David meetings between Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
For the next 14 years, Mr. Boutros-Ghali stood near the pinnacle of Egyptian foreign policy, holding such posts as acting foreign minister, deputy prime minister and secretary of state. But the fact that he was a Christian barred him from becoming foreign minister in a country where political considerations dictate that the post be held by a Muslim.
Blocked from advancement at home, he became a candidate for the U.N. post in 1992, at a time when the African bloc was asserting that it was its turn to hold the secretary general’s job. Although most African states would have preferred someone from black Africa, they were unable to get enough support from outside Africa and agreed to Mr. Boutros-Ghali as the alternative.
At the time, the one sour note came from the United States, which was never enthusiastic about Mr. Boutros-Ghali. But after a U.S. attempt to push then Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney for the post fell through, the United States, in deference to its Egyptian ally, agreed to permit his election. The secretary general effectively is chosen by the 15-member Security Council, and a permanent member such the United States can veto any decision. In the actual vote, the United States abstained.
The differences between Mr. Boutros-Ghali and Washington first percolated unmistakably to the surface in October 1993, when U.S. troops backing up a U.N. relief mission in Somalia became involved in a disastrous raid that left 15 American soldiers dead. The Americans were under the command not of the United Nations but of the United States, which had planned and ordered the abortive mission.
But the Clinton administration, maneuvering to escape a tide of outraged domestic opinion, sought to foster the impression that the raid had been the work of the United Nations.
Clinton, in a television address, announced that henceforth U.S. troops “will be under American command,” as if that were a change in their status. And administration officials let it be known that senior U.S. officials, led by Albright, had dressed down Mr. Boutros-Ghali for the alleged U.N. failure in Somalia.
For his part, Mr. Boutros-Ghali squelched the desire of U.N. officials to respond to Washington’s attempts to cast him as a scapegoat. He told reporters: “I don’t want to provoke the member states . . . I must help the member states so that they will be able to help me. If the member states need the United Nations to overcome certain internal problems, the United Nations must accept.”
But the Somalia incident proved to be a harbinger of other difficulties to come. Mr. Boutros-Ghali nagged Washington incessantly about its propagation of a U.N. financial crisis through its failure to pay between $1 billion and $1.5 billion in back dues and assessments.
At the same time, he proved reluctant to institute many reforms demanded by Washington because their implementation would cause substantial cuts in many U.N. jobs and programs favored by the members of the developing world who were his hard-core support base.
The greatest difficulty came over the bloody civil war in Bosnia, with Mr. Boutros-Ghali exerting a role in efforts to end the fighting that was too ambitious for Washington’s taste. He and Albright clashed repeatedly over his insistence on U.N. control of the international peace-keeping force operating in Bosnia, particularly his refusal to delegate to British and French officers commanding most of the force the right to authorize airstrikes against the Serbs.
Mr. Boutros-Ghali’s supporters contended that his alleged bowing to Serb pressures reflected the pragmatic reality that they were the strongest party in the Bosnia conflict and that treating them gingerly was necessary to gain their cooperation and deter them from violence against the peacekeepers.
Nevertheless, an independent report about the failures in Bosnia criticized Mr. Boutros-Ghali and his chief lieutenants there harshly for their reluctance to use air power against the Serbs and their failure to oppose more vigorously other Serb actions that led to the slaughter of thousands of Bosnian Muslims.
By the beginning of 1996, when it became apparent that Mr. Boutros-Ghali intended to seek a second term, the Clinton administration concluded that he could become a negative factor in Clinton’s reelection effort. Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), later to be Clinton’s opponent, was making mocking references to “Boo-trus Boo-trus” before audiences across the country. The administration quietly mounted a year-long campaign under Albright’s direction to derail the secretary general’s candidacy.
Mr. Boutros-Ghali had at least the nominal support of almost all the other U.N. members, with the developing world countries passionately behind him. In the face of that backing, other candidates were unwilling to come forward.
And the U.S. campaign was led by Albright, scorned by the suave Boutros-Ghali as an unskilled, novice diplomat who had alienated many of her U.N. colleagues with what they regarded as a hectoring manner.
In the end, though, she won out. Albright, described by an aide as convinced that support for Mr. Boutros-Ghali was “a mile wide but only an inch deep,” skillfully chipped away at him. Africans, fearful of losing the secretary general’s job, were offered Annan as an alternative.
When Clinton, at the end of 1996, tapped Albright to become secretary of state, other U.N. delegations became especially leery of antagonizing her. Most telling of all, the United States never wavered in asserting that it would use its Security Council veto against Mr. Boutros-Ghali come what may, and that any efforts to push his candidacy in the council deliberations would be an exercise in futility.
That threat prevailed. When the United States voted against him in the council’s preliminary straw votes, it became clear to all the membership that Washington would not change course. First, some of Mr. Boutros-Ghali’s supporters on the council turned away from him. Then the Africans broke their solid wall of support and began to put forward other candidates.
Finally, with the handwriting clearly on the wall, Mr. Boutros-Ghali withdrew his candidacy and opened the way to Annan’s election. On Jan. 1, 1997, Mr. Boutros-Ghali walked out of the United Nations and flew to Egypt, ending five tumultuous years as head of the world body.
John M. Goshko, a longtime diplomatic affairs writer for The Washington Post, died in 2014.