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Chasing the Flame

Sergio Vieira de Mello-a humanitarian, peacemaker and state builder -was at centre of the most significant geopolitical crises of the last half-century. Born in 1948, just as the post-World War II order was taking shape, he died in a terrorist attack on UN headquarters in Iraq in 2003 as the battle lines in the twenty first-century's first great polarizing struggle were being drawn. This is a dual biography: the story of a man who never stopped learning and the biography of a perilous world whose ills are too big to ignore but too complex to manage quickly or cheaply. Even as Vieira de Mello arranged food deliveries, organized refugee returns, or negotiated with warlords, he pressed his colleagues to join him in grappling with such questions as: When should killers be engaged and when should they be shunned? When is military force justified? How can outsiders play a role in healing broken people and broken places? He did not have the luxury of simply posing these questions; he had to find answers, apply them, and live with the consequences.
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About the Author

Samantha Power is Anna Lindh Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy Practice at Harvard University's School of Government. Her book, "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide (2003), was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award for general non-fiction, the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize and the Council on Foreign Relations' Arthur Ross Prize for the best book in U.S. foreign policy. Power is also the recipient of two National Magazine Awards.


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) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.

'Chasing the Flame is a brilliantly researched biography about an extraordinary man' - Richard Beeston, The Times 'a compelling work, culminating in a brilliant and moving reconstruction of Vieira de Mello's doomed last mission in Iraq' - Rosemary Righter, TLS

Sergio Vieira de Mello (1948-2003) was a career UN employee who died in Baghdad doing what he had long done: trying to bring relief to those in situations of international conflict. He had worked in most of the hotspots of the last quarter century, including Cambodia, the Balkans, East Timor, and Rwanda, and his success led to his increasing responsibility within the UN. A practical man of action, happiest doing fieldwork yet also a thinker (he had a doctorate in philosophy), he was keenly aware of the moral ambiguities in refugee situations, where bringing relief to the innocent requires working with the malefactors rather than pursuing immediate justice against them. Power (global leadership & public policy, Kennedy Sch. of Government, Harvard) emphasizes these paradoxes and complexities and the varying adaptations that Vieira de Mello was forced to make to resolve the issues at hand. Her approach is similar to her earlier, award-winning A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Most of her text covers the last six years of her subject's career, in great day-to-day detail, with his earlier years covered only briefly. Powers has brought to life, for both general and specialist readers, a complex figure who dared to take on the greatest challenges, always seeking to reach even higher. Highly recommended for all collections.--Marcia L. Sprules, Council on Foreign Relations Lib., New York Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.

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