The sixth secretary general of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has died. He was the first African and only Arab to hold the post. He was a well respected diplomat and beloved by much of the world, though much less so here in the United States in the mid 1990s.
He was an historic figure for a number of reasons. He lead the United Nations at a time of maximum peril and maximum disaster for the organization. His tenure from 1992 to 1996 coincided some of the lowest moments for the United Nations, including the genocide in Rwanda, genocide in Bosnia, and Somalia’s descent into chaos.
He was also historic for the fact that he was the first and only Secretary General not to be elected to a second term. A number of top Clinton administration officials vehemently disapproved of Boutros-Ghali and took it upon themselves to convince President Clinton to block his appointment. Richard Clarke, a top official in Clinton’s National Security Council, dubbed this “Operation Orient Express.” They succeeded. The USA signaled its intent to veto Boutros-Ghali, and the Security Council rallied around a consensus candidate, a career UN employee named Kofi Annan.
But there was another reason that the Clinton administration vetoed Boutros-Ghali, and it had precious little to do with American foreign policy at all. 1996 was an election year, and the Republican challenger Bob Dole had taken to bashing Boutros Boutros-Ghali on the campaign trail, often accusing Bill Clinton of outsourcing his foreign policy to the UN Secretary General.
Boutros Boutros Ghali became a big part of Dole’s stump speech. His name was even scornfully invoked made at the GOP National Convention in San Diego.
That kind of intense political pressure in the midst of a hotly contested election season seemed to seal his fate.
So, fast forward 20 years and here we are in the middle of another election year in the United States. And again, the American election happens to coincide with the race to replace Ban Ki Moon, whose term expires in 2016. The top candidates for the UN job will likely be known by the summer, and the final pick made by September.
This is about two months before the American elections.
It is probably too soon to tell if there will be any demonstrable effect of the presidential race on the race to become the next secretary general; or what impact the race to replace Ban Ki Moon will have on the U.S. presidential elections.
But we do know, thanks to Boutros Boutros-Ghali, that being elected once is no guarantee for a second term. Performance on the job matters. Apparently, so too does domestic politics in one of the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council.