Shaking hands and reading bias

Whatever one thinks of Ban Ki-moon’s diplomatic style as Secretary-General, to describe his policy of meeting with rather unsavory foreign leaders as “jetting off for tete-a-tetes” or having “discreet chats” with autocrats, as Colum Lynch does in his WaPo piece today, certainly shifts the tenor of the argument in a derisive direction. I imagine that much of the subtle rhetorical slant in Lynch’s article has to do with finding an appealing hook for an old story: that there are plenty of foreign policy crises that are not going very well, and that the strategy and performance and of Secretary-General in dealing with these issues has been controversial.

But what’s frustrating is that Lynch takes the very easy way out of this jam, reducing complex issues of diplomacy, political causality, and the place of rhetoric in effecting change into a depiction of “We can talk” seances with dictators. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing the approach of meeting with foreign leaders; after all, Ban is surely aware that, lamentably, much of what comes out of these meetings are photo-ops, such as the one that adorns the Post article, of the S-G shaking hands with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. But this is, as Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch clarifies, as quoted by Lynch, only the image that people have of Ban. This distorted image, of a carefree, amoral, and ineffective shaker-of-hands, comes partially from these photo-ops and people’s own rash interpretations; but it also comes, in a major way, from articles like Colum Lynch’s.

It may seem an insufficient response to criticism to argue that Ban Ki-moon’s job is perhaps the hardest in the world, but, well, Ban Ki-moon’s job is perhaps the hardest in the world. Lynch touches on this, quoting U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice deflecting Lynch’s agenda by offering up this exact argument, but one could easily read the article and resentfully surmise that Sri Lanka’s military slaughtered civilians because Ban Ki-moon didn’t mount a loud enough protest.

The S-G’s only weapon is the podium, and it is one whose power many seem to overestimate. Might fewer Sri Lankans have died if Ban had issued harsher words? Might Burma’s ruling junta have allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to participate in next year’s elections, rather than extend her interminable house arrest once again, if Ban had “demanded” as much? Might Omar al-Bashir have committed to a robust peace deal in Sudan if Ban had refused to meet with him? All are extremely unlikely, and all of which is to say that if these are the expectations for a Secretary-General, then we might as well resign ourselves for ineffectiveness.