Samantha Power on Sergio Vieira de Mello.

Samantha Power on Sergio Vieira de Mello.

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.