Lost in a world of troubles: The United Nations has the wrong man at the top, argues Peter Pringle, while Christopher Bellamy says its new commander in Bosnia needs to call the shots

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TO HEAR United States officials talk in private about their rising irritation with Boutros Boutros- Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, it is hard to escape the thought that it would be best for everyone if he were to resign. There is simply too much at stake.

The man is hopelessly egocentric, the Americans will tell you. He has few political or mangerial skills, they moan. He is neither an effective leader nor a good bureaucrat.

At a time when the UN members are enthusiastic about working together, Mr Boutros-Ghali seems better at making enemies than friends. He rules the bureaucracy by stealth, scaring away too many of the good guys. In the execution of the UN's highest profile operations - peace-keeping - Mr Boutros- Ghali tends to exaggerate his role and create obstacles where there are none. In short, he is the wrong man for the job.

Few among the UN membership would challenge this characterisation. Too many have experienced Mr Boutros-Ghali's aloofness and obsession with his own prerogatives. Too many on his staff have sought a close working relationship and been turned away at the door of his office on the 38th floor of UN headquarters in New York. Too many ambassadors have been taken in by his soft-spoken professorial air and then suddenly found themselves on the receiving end of a bristling reprimand, even an insult. They don't like the way he keeps them waiting at Security Council meetings, and they certainly don't like him calling them functionnaires - bureaucrats. As he has pointedly reminded these normally unharried envoys, he is not a diplomat, he is a man of principle. Unfortunately, the UN Secretary-General needs to be both.

Increasingly, the wardens of the UN's credibility and prestige fear that Mr Boutros-Ghali is unable to advance either asset, not for lack of funds or resources but because his personality and modus operandi get in the way. He does not command the necessary respect. His critics are concerned that he is so offhand with governments that he cannot ever hope to command the kind of attention Dag Hammarskjold did in the Sixties. When Hammarskjold needed 5,000 troops in the Congo in a hurry, he got them in three days. Now Mr Boutros-Ghali is lucky to get five tanks in five months in Bosnia.

Morale is so low at the UN that to complain of the leader is to undermine what little strength the organisation can still summon to the struggle with overwork and unpaid dues. The members are unsure what state the world body will be in when it celebrates its 50th birthday next year. Yet while people experience irritation with Mr Boutros-Ghali, few will express it and then only in private. Even fewer think that anything can - or should - be done to shorten Mr Boutros-Ghali's five- year tenure. Best not even to discuss it.

What is the real combined weight of these irritations? Should they be taken seriously, and what can be done about them?

First, one cannot blame Mr Boutros-Ghali for his failures without blaming the governments that put him there. He was a well-known figure when elected at the beginning of 1992 as the sixth UN leader. In the Egyptian foreign ministry he was admired for his intellect and his courage. The Americans knew him well as one of the architects of Camp David. The French actively pursued his candidacy because he had been educated in France; he was 'one of them'. But he had no reputation for organising; in fact, he was well known to be bad at it. He had never been a boss and yet here he was, nearing 70, put in charge of a huge bureaucracy in desperate need of reform and good management.

That Mr Boutros-Ghali was chosen was a measure of how little governments cared about who led the United Nations. By contrast, when Harvard University needed a new president recently, they spent dollars 3m ( pounds 2m) on a two-year search to find the man they needed. When such a search party was suggested for the secretary-general, governments insisted this was an in-house job. There should nothing so vulgar as a selection board.

At the time, Mr Boutros-Ghali was warned that the task was becoming too much for one man. Thirty governments suggested a reorganisation of the secretariat to strengthen its base. The idea was to have four deputy secretary-generals, one for peace-keeping, one for economics and social affairs, one for humanitarian aid and a fourth for administration and finance. The need for such bolstering seemed obvious to those who proposed it: the UN was in high profile, blue helmets were being dispatched to a string of new countries needing help. But Mr Boutros-Ghali did not want his own post devalued. He would go it alone. Two years on, the UN secretariat is weak, ineffective and suffers from his autocratic management style.

Nowhere is the Secretary-General's profile higher than in peace- keeping operations, and Mr Boutros-Ghali has presided over the largest in UN history: in Cambodia, former Yugoslavia and Somalia. The Cambodian mission was a significant success, but he has been blamed for disasters in Somalia and for grabbing too much authority in Bosnia. These criticisms are both fair and unfair.

When 18 US Army Rangers were killed in Somalia, President Bill Clinton blamed Mr Boutros-Ghali for the failure of the policy of hunting down the warlord General Mohamed Farah Aideed. Without consulting Mr Boutros-Ghali, Mr Clinton abruptly announced the withdrawal by the end of March of US forces, leaving the Secretary- General to pick up the pieces. In fact, the hunt for General Aideed had been mainly a US operation and the disastrous Ranger mission was under Pentagon, not UN control. It was a cheap shot for Mr Clinton to make a scapegoat of Mr Boutros-Ghali. However, the Secretary-General irritated the US and other UN members by pursuing the hunt for General Aideed long after it had been given up as a lost cause.

To blame Mr Boutros-Ghali for failing to stop the war in Bosnia would be unjust and would require a grossly oversimplified version of events. All the countries involved in Bosnia must take the blame for not having found a peaceful solution. Mr Boutros-Ghali's important tactical error, though, was his attempt to over-extend his authority. Throughout the long debate on whether to use air strikes against the Serbs, the Secretary-General has rightly sought protection for his forces on the ground by insisting that he has the final say. But he projected his authority beyond its usefulness by still holding back when the countries providing virtually the entire Bosnia UN force voted, in the NATO council, to go ahead with air strikes.

These may seem small mistakes, but Mr Boutros-Ghali's stubbornness sent counterproductive signals to the UN's detractors on Capitol Hill, and enabled them to complain about Mr Boutros-Ghali running US foreign policy. At the same time, he managed to alienate the supporters of his great vision of a more robust UN peace enforcement role by seeming to block action. He destroyed his own political base.

US support is a sine qua non for UN operations. In this context there would seem to be two ways to approach the job of secretary-general. One is to be a consummate politician and play off the key constituencies - the Africans, the Latin Americans, the Europeans and the US - against each other while retaining one's own base. This is the activist approach that can lead to perhaps small but still significant changes in the course of history.

The second approach is to be the global diplomat, a low-profile good manager who keeps the UN running smoothly and takes advantage of the fact that all member states are now ready to work in concert and are even enthusiatic about the UN becoming more important.

Mr Boutros-Ghali has tried the first approach. He has been the most activist secretary-general since Hammarskjold, but boldness in itself is not enough. As he doesn't have a political base, his effectiveness is limited. As for the second approach, he has been neither low- profile, nor a good manager. At the very least, some severe mid-course corrections would seem in order, otherwise he will undermine his greater objective of making the UN a more important player in world politics.

(Photograph omitted)