Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

The UN's Top Envoy Speaks Out, but Who's Listening? (July 18, 2004)
"Prominent columnists, led by William Safire of the New York Times, have vilified [Lakhdar Brahimi], but for what? Is his wisdom and effectiveness too much to be tolerated in a U.N. official? Is it because he is an Arab? Or just a foreigner?"

Blunt Approach Needed to Tackle India's AIDS Crisis (July 12, 2004)
"India, with 5.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS, is poised to overtake South Africa as the nation with the most cases in the world."

Fighting World Poverty: Count the U.S. Out (July 7, 2004)
"What is going on when the United States, home to a lot of the freest, most powerful women on earth, is represented by people who quail at words like 'reproductive health' and want to excise language that gives a woman control of her own body?"

Out of School and Cleaning Toilets: Kids in Domestic Servitude (June 28, 2004)
"Children trapped in low-paid or unpaid labor are robbed of schooling and, for that matter, of childhood."

Changing Mindsets and Fortunes in the Poorest Nations (June 21, 2004)
"To potential investors and aid agencies, the stirrings of hope say: Don't stop now. And to the people of any number of nations willing to give it a try, the tentative signs of progress say: It can be done."

When Peacekeeping Turns to Despair (June 14, 2004)
"A new and disturbing book is getting a lot of attention around the United Nations—so much that two of its three authors fear they will be dismissed."

McAskie One of UN's Few Women Special Representatives (June 7, 2004)
"Women, few as they are in this line of work, seem to get the toughest assignments."

More from U.N. Notebook.

U.N. Notebook | July 18, 2004
from U. N. Wire The UN's Top Envoy Speaks Out, but Who's Listening?

by Barbara Crossette

UNITED NATIONS—Lakhdar Brahimi, fresh from running interference between the United States and the Iraqis in Baghdad, got a timely opportunity in Germany on July 8 to look back over 15 years of tough U.N. assignments and reveal what he had learned about how—and how not—to put countries back together. His wisdom should not be ignored.

From the archives:

"The Pragmatist" (July/August 2004
Lakhdar Brahimi understands that perhaps neither peace nor justice is possible in Iraq—which may make him just the man the country needs. By Laura Secor

Brahimi served in Lebanon from 1989 to 1991, in South Africa during the transition to multiracial democracy in 1993 to 1994 and in Haiti from 1994 to 1996. Next were two spells in Afghanistan, in 1997 to 1999, after the Taliban seized power, and again from 2001 to early 2004, when he was a guiding hand in the country's political reconstruction. This year, it was Iraq.

The German United Nations Association, awarding Brahimi its Dag Hammarskjold Medal, gave him a rare public forum to speak at length about peacekeeping and security missions. A former Algerian foreign minister before he became one of the United Nations' top troubleshooters, Brahimi produced an incisive report several years ago on the functioning of U.N. peacekeeping and how to improve it both in theory and practice.

He is a pro, but his thoughtful speech in Munich this month got virtually no attention in the United States, where the government has long had an ambivalent relationship with Brahimi, dating back to the Clinton years. Some prominent columnists, led by William Safire of the New York Times, have vilified him, but for what? Is his wisdom and effectiveness too much to be tolerated in a U.N. official? Is it because he is an Arab? Or just a foreigner?

In light of the debates over the conduct of U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and public reactions to them, some of the comments he made in Germany bear repeating.

Brahimi says he is careful to avoid sweeping pronouncements when asked about what he learned. "My answer, as a rule, is that no two situations are alike, no crisis in a given country resembles one in another and, therefore, no two missions are alike," he said. "I often add that, whereas your past experience will certainly be of much help to you, in every mission you have to adapt to existing realities, you have to deliberately look for what in the new mission is different from the previous one, not for what is similar."

For a U.S. audience, this could translate into: Iraq is not Vietnam.

That said, Brahimi then offered a few general principles for would-be peacemakers and nation-builders. "The only prudent starting point at the beginning of any mission," he said, "is to try and understand as best you can why there was a conflict in the first place."

Questions to ask, he said, include "What is the context in which you find yourself? Are the minimum conditions there for a successful process?" He said he has learned to talk "to a lot of people, over and over again."

Americans are finding out now that there is a lot they didn't know about the Iraqis and their old grievances and divisions.

"Second, unfortunately," Brahimi said, "the most important decisions end up having to be taken early on, before we are knowledgeable enough to anticipate what their implications might be. By the time we know where we stand, we may be saddled with inappropriate past models to which we have clung, or held in contempt for promises we cannot keep."

"Third," he said, "it is better to resist the temptation to declare victory prematurely." Ouch.

"Finally," he added, peacekeeping is not getting any easier because "our expectations and agendas are not getting any more realistic. Instead, they have become more ambiguous and multifaceted, seeking to promote justice, national reconciliation, human rights, gender equality, the rule of law, sustainable economic development and democracy—all at the same time, from day one, now, immediately, even in the midst of conflict."

Brahimi concluded with some very pointed—and controversial—criticisms of how major nations conducted international policies, leaving enormous problems for the United Nations and weak local institutions to deal with. He names names. He said, for example, that Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was returned to his usurped presidency in Haiti by U.S. troops in 1994, "cunningly" refused to compromise with any other party (or the remnants of the military junta). "He was given a total victory that—as we know now—he did not deserve," Brahimi said.

On South Africa, Brahimi said that while Nelson Mandela was "a true giant of the 20th century," white South African leader F.W. De Klerk "has not been given the international recognition he deserves."

Turning to Afghanistan, Brahimi said that, as in Haiti, one side was given an unwarranted, near total victory. In the rush to oust the Taliban in 2001, the United States allied with a group of violent warlords who had devastated the country in the mid-1990s until being driven back by Taliban fighters, who were initially welcomed by Afghans.

"The problem in the case of Afghanistan in 2001, after the U.S invasion, was that the opposition groups that had once held far less than 10 percent of the territory all of a sudden found themselves controlling all of it," he said. The United States then compounded the disaster by refusing to support Afghanistan's pleas for troops outside Kabul, where the warlords run wild.

In his speech, Brahimi revealed that he went to Iraq in February of this year initially because of a call for assistance from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a key Shiite figure who would not meet with the U.S. administrator, Paul Bremer. The now-disbanded Iraqi Governing Council also asked Secretary General Kofi Annan for help, followed finally by the U.S.-led coalition. Brahimi, a Muslim, said he spoke with thousands of Iraqis of all opinions, and decided that at this stage there was no way to avoid selecting—rather than electing—an Iraqi government.

He called the government that emerged "imperfect," but added, "It is nevertheless the best result that was achievable under the circumstances."

Brahimi rejects criticisms of the quality of the Iraqi government now in authority and the reputations of individual ministers, whom he said were "recognized as amongst the most qualified experts in their respective fields."

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, he said, was the candidate who appeared to face the least opposition in all the power centers of the country. Allawi is under attack in the West for his past association with the CIA, which—as we know now—had been pretty desperate for good sources of information on Saddam Hussein's regime.

"His resumé understandably provokes controversy," said Brahimi, ever the practitioner of realpolitik. But whose name in connection with the post of prime minister does not provoke controversy in today's Iraq?"

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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see

Copyright © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.