Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World

Samantha Power, Author . Penguin $29.95 (622p) ISBN 978-1-59420-128-8

The death of the charismatic Brazilian chief of the U.N. Mission to Iraq in a 2003 terrorist bombing symbolized both the U.N.'s haplessness—he died because rescuers lacked the training and equipment to free him from the rubble—and its idealism. In this sprawling biography, Vieira de Mello's life symbolizes the tragic contradictions of coping with humanitarian crises. Journalist Power, author of the Pulitzer-winning The Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide , follows Vieira de Mello through a U.N. career spent in hot spots like Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo. His tasks were many: implementing peace accords, settling refugees, overseeing elections, running the government of East Timor. In each posting, he confronts a hydra-headed monster of communal violence and poverty, plus difficulties compounded by U.N. red tape, miserly budgets and uncaring Western governments. Agonizing dilemmas abound. Should refugees be fed or sent home? Should U.N. peacekeepers observe or intervene? Should past atrocities be prosecuted or overlooked? Playing by ear, Vieira de Mello charts an erratic course through these conundrums. Sometimes he's a human rights zealot, sometimes he cozies up to the Khmer Rouge; sometimes he negotiates with the Serbs, sometimes he wants to bomb them.

Vieira de Mello comes off as a charming diplomat, a canny politician and an inspiring leader, and the author celebrates his flexibility and pragmatism (while criticizing his failures). Power wants to extract lasting lessons for the international community's efforts to head off humanitarian catastrophes and mend failed states from his experience. Unfortunately, it's hard to discern through his improvisations any systematic approach to nation building or to such vexed issues as humanitarian military intervention and regime change. The lack of perspective isn't helped by the biographical format, as the peripatetic Vieira de Mello jets from one conflagration to the next, then on to a romantic getaway with a mistress or to give a murky speech on Kant. We get the impression that U.N. missions are inevitably a hopeless muddle unless Sergio, with his unique talents, parachutes in to fix things; the book may thus inadvertently encourage critics of the U.N.-style interventionism that Power supports. Readers will gain an appreciation of Vieira de Mello's gifts, but not the method to his magic. B&w photos. (Mar. 6)

Reviewed on: 12/24/2007
Release date: 02/01/2008
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