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

4 Star, Asymmetric, Cyber, Hacking, Odd War, Atrocities & Genocide, Civil Society, Diplomacy, Disaster Relief, Insurgency & Revolution, Peace, Poverty, & Middle Class, United Nations & NGOs

Chasing FlamePrimary Research Well Done, Lacks Synthesis

Samantha Power

Book loses one star–perhaps unfairly–for not integrating secondary sources and using the *combination* of this extraordinary biography and the Brahimi Report and other core documents, to illuminate why the UN desperately needs a United Nations Open-Source Decision-Support Information Network (UNODIN).

+ Sergio Vieira de Mello (henceforth SVM) spent forty-years as a UN gad-fly, and his resume of tens of short assignments interspersed with a handful of 2-3 year assignments is a testimony to all that is wrong–not with him, but rather–with UN recruitment, training, continuity of operations, and lack of decision support.

+ The book opens with the observation that Paul Bremer (the ultimate US dilettante who set us back five to ten years while losing tens of billions of dollars) refused most of SVM’s suggestions, especially on setting timelines (the same ideas General Garner adopted before he was fired by Dick Cheney and replaced with Bremer). We are told his last words were “Oh shit” and I somehow doubt that.

+ Vague mandates were a constant problem (see Peacekeeping Intelligence: Emerging Concepts for the Future for a full discussion of why the Brahimi Report still needs to be implemented, so the mandate can be informed, the force configured based on ground truth, etc.)

+ UN got into “governing” for the first time in Kosovo, and was completely ill-equipped for the task.

+ SVM reflected with the author that the world was too big to ignore but too complex to manage quickly or cheaply. Later in the book he is cited as recognizing that the UN is so dysfunctional that governments work around it (while foundations beg for effective focal points for their giving totaling $500B a year), but that governments are not prone to support long term interests in eradicating the ten high level threats as lain out in A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility–Report of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change

+ SVM was an impressive scholar. He finished first out of 198 at the Sorbonne in Philosophy. He did a Masters in moral philosophy (a tautological redundancy I would have thought) and then a doctoral in two levels, one in 1974 and one in 1985. It was here that he understood that governments are not adept at preventing crises nor as rebuilding failed societies.

– First level doctorate: “The Role of Philosophy in Contemporary History,” with key line “Not only has history ceased to feed philosophy, but philosophy no longer feeds history.”

– Second “Etat” doctorate: “Civitas Maxima; Origins, Foundations, and Philosophical and Practical Significance of the Supranational Concept.” Those wishing to learn more about the failure of the nation-state and the mistakes of Westphalia can begin with The Health of Nations: Society and Law beyond the State with Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush as the aperitif, and Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health as the strong finish.

+ He composed his speeches on hotel note pads, observing that if he could not fit his argument to a hotel pad, he probably did not know what he was trying to say.

+ At this point I have a note, overall a very good use of biography to offer a “sense” of the UN, but lacking in synthesis, recommendations, or secondary sources.

+ Early in the book and throughout, one senses that Lebanon is the UN’s modern birthplace, and where it has been permanently hospitalized if not euthanized.

+ SVM is quoted as saying that constructive change required “a synthesis of utopia and realism.” I urge the reader to visit Earth Intelligence Network to see this being implemented.

+ Pages 87-89 provide a marvelous condemnation of satellite surveillance as a panacea. SPOT Image which does ten meter or 1:50,000 multispectral imagery, identified land “suitable for resettlement.” Actual ground inspection failed the satellite findings, which did not see the land mines or the malarial mosquitoes.

+ SVM valued local staff, actively cultivated their inputs regardless of rank or function, and he is described as having a keen eye for symbolism.

+ We learn from this book that UN “teams” are assembled in an ad hoc fashion reflecting the whims and past good relations of the ubber boss, and I for one recognized what chaos and discontinuity this represents for all elements of the UN System.

+ We learn that when the UN arrives the cost of everything skyrockets, not least because UN employees get $140 a day, which in the specific instance of Cambodia or Kosovo, I forget, was the average ANNUAL income for any given person. I point to William Shawcross’s unforgettable Deliver Us from Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords and a World of Endless Conflict. Read my review of that book to see the relevance.

+ SVM proves clever in one instance, suggesting that smugglers not only be hired to get around a blockage against blankets, but that they be given dignity in the form of a UN consultant certificate. From many such accounts the author excels at painting a portrait of a complex and very intelligence UN official.

+ It is at this point that I check the index to discover that neither the word “information” nor the word “intelligence” nor the compound word “decision-support” appear.

+ The author cites SVM as saying that he was fed up with American bullying–I can certainly understand that–and that the hardest part of peacekeeping was internal peacekeeping (within the UN’s dysfunctional family).

+ It is here I note: “At every turn: ‘We don’t know; ‘We don’t have the information; ‘We are too few to certify….'”

+ Then I see the golden nugget, on page 219, in his words: “We are so remarkably ill-informed. We go into a place, we have no intelligence, we don’t understand the politics, and we can’t identify the points of leverage. See the PKI book cited above, and also the forthcoming book, PEACE INTELLIGENCE: Assuring a Good Life for All, with a Foreword by MajGen Patrick Cammaert, who with this book and a decade of effort, got many at the UN to understand that Brahimi had it exactly right: intelligence is decision support using legal ethical open sources, and it has nothing to do with espionage. The raw book is at OSS.Net/Peace, just add the www. at the beginning.

+ The book continues with many vignettes where the UN elements are uninformed, therefore they do poor planning (lousy mandates, crummy force structures, no tactical combat charts for landing zones, etc) and hence they are often over-whelmed.

+ SVM saw a need for and proposed that the UN address the constant law enforcement gap by maintaining a roster of pre-trained and available multinational police, judges, lawyers, and prosecutors. See Policing the New World Disorder: Peace Operations and Public Security, my review includes notice of the fact that most UN “police,” e.g. those from Nigeria, can neither read nor drive.

+ We learn that SVM was acutely aware of how the UN’s reputation for competence plummeted in the 1990’s and how he learned in East Timor was that Legitimacy was Performance Based. As a side note, when East Timor went down I led one of 40 different efforts to answer the same three questions: 1) where are the bodies; 2) where can we land; and 3) who is is coming when, and what are they bringing. That was when I realized the need for a Multinational Decision-Support Center. On legitimacy, see The Search for Security: A U.S. Grand Strategy for the Twenty-First Century

+ The book comes to a close with several useful notes.

– Law and order gap a constant recurring theme.

– SVR saw Iraq as a peer nation meriting respect rather than patronizing from the US

– Excellent discussion of the days leading up to the attack on the UN headquarters; to the dismissal by the US of all UN requests for information or security, and the realization, too late after the attack on the Jordanian embassy, that the UN HQ was a “soft target.”

– KUDOS to LtCol John Curran, whose foresight and rehearsal to include identification of all relevant helicopter med-evac landing zones, ensured that no one died for lack of very rapid medical evacuation. I certainly hope the UN put him for a Legion of Merit, at the very least.

The Epilogue is bland.

+ UN is a broken system.

+ SVM said “the future is to be invented.”

+ Legitimacy matters

+ Spoilers must be engaged

+ Fearful people must be made more secure

+ Dignity is cornerstone of order

+ Outsiders must bring humility and patience.

Two other books (see also my many lists):
High Noon 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them
Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Third Edition