The Man from UNHCR

Article excerpt

[Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira De Mello and the Fight to Save the World, Samantha Power, Allen Lane, 640 pages]

BOOKS NOW OFTEN come with both title and subtitle to tweak the customer's attention. The subtitle of Samantha Power's new book certainly raised my eyebrows. "The Fight to Save the World"? Good Lord. Immediately, I recalled a volume from the opposite end of the political spectrum entitled An End To Evil. Surely these are tasks for a messiah, not mere mortals? No, our authors see them as legitimate ambitions for the American Republic.

In the case of Samantha Power, the issue is relevant given her close association with Barack Obama. Power worked in the senator's office and was an adviser to his campaign until her recent public gaffe describing Hillary Clinton as a "monster." Despite this misstep, she could reasonably anticipate a position in an Obama administration. Does she see the subject of her new book, the Brazilian-born United Nations humanitarian affairs official Sergio Vieira de Mello, as an inspiration for that putative role? Evidently. In the acknowledgments at the end of the volume she describes Obama as "the person whose rigor and compassion bear the closest resemblance to

Sergio's that I have ever seen." What does the comparison imply for the counsel she might give a future president? Sergio Vieira de Mello is a good subject for a biography, certainly more worthy than much of the political pulp that plagues an election year. He came to the world's attention as the earliest VIP victim of a terrorist bombing in Baghdad in August 2003, when the United Nations headquarters in Iraq was destroyed. By that time, Vieira de Mello had become something of a legend within the UN system and among humanitarian organizations, although he was often a subject of controversy. Power's description of his painful and pointless death at the hands of al-Qaeda--which blamed him, among other things, for separating predominately Catholic East Timor from largely Muslim Indonesia--is genuinely moving. There are hundreds of thousands of families around the globe today who owe their livelihoods, if not their very lives, to his efforts. That is a towering legacy for almost any individual, let alone one who operated within the limits of multilateral bureaucracy.

Vieira de Mello's career illustrates the dichotomy of a world that is flat in the distribution of individual talent but jagged in opportunities for that talent to flourish. A person born in Belgium or Botswana is just as likely to be gifted as one born in America or China, but far less likely to develop those gifts, especially in international public affairs.

Today, however, the multilateral sector provides outlets for the abilities and ambitions of people born outside the great powers. It is noteworthy that Vieira de Mello never served his native country in any capacity, and Brazil took official notice of him only after his death. He joined the UN almost by accident as a very young man--he needed some kind of job--but gave the institution a loyalty, dedication, and even passion often associated with patriotism. In an organization that was notorious for its time-servers and cynics, he believed that the UN spelled legitimacy. In an earlier century, he might have devoted his talents to a religious order, a corporation, or--given his early Marxist convictions--the Revolution.

Only 55 at the time of his death, Vieira de Mello had encountered a kind of inversion of the Peter Principle: he had not reached the limit of his own competence, but had exceeded that of the United Nations. His Baghdad mission was doomed by decisions already made in Washington, while in New York the UN leadership wanted to play a role in Iraq simply to demonstrate its continuing relevance. As one UN official recalled, "That was the whole plan: Sergio will fix it." He died trying.

Power is balanced about her subject's virtues and contradictions, yet she does not recognize that a powerful motive for Vieira de Mello was the pursuit of adventure. …