The List

When They Were Kings

The United Nations has long been a playground for bad boy dictators. But there are a few notables who won't be making the trek to New York for the festivities and powwows this week.

How times have changed. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his top lieutenants have applauded the fall of an aging generation of Middle East and African autocrats, swept from power by a wave of uprising spurred by popular discontent. In the months leading up to this year's U.N. General Assembly which kicks off on Wednesday, Sept. 21, Ban has openly encouraged NATO's military efforts to topple the likes of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, and accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of reneging on his promise to halt military operations against unarmed demonstrators.

But in previous General Assembly sessions -- indeed as recently as last year -- U.N. officials and foreign dignitaries treated these very same leaders like diplomatic royalty, perhaps seeing them, wrongly, as bastions of stability in an otherwise unstable part of the world.

How swiftly a leader can turn from being an honored guest at U.N. headquarters, to a defiled rogue. Still the absence of these players may portend a duller General Assembly session this year. While the attendance of the ever-controversial Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who once made headlines in New York for declaring his country free of homosexuals, can likely be counted on to liven the agenda, his own standing is diminished in Iran and the novelty of his provocations is wearing ever thinner. Venezuelan President, Hugo Chávez who, in 2006, famously compared former President George W. Bush to the devil before the U.N. podium, is undergoing cancer treatment and will not attend.

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Moammar al-Qaddafi

Two years ago, Libya's strongman traveled to New York to address the annual gathering of world leaders, and revel in his new status as a respectable statesman. Qaddafi's pariah status seemed a thing of the past, with his government ascending to the chairmanship of the African Union, a seat on the U.N. Security Council, and the presidency of the U.N. General Assembly. Qaddafi's embrace by the United Nations followed years of diplomatic spade work by Britain and the United States, including a carefully crafted deal that secured an end to U.N. sanctions in exchange for a deal to compensate families of those killed in the Lockerbie bombing, the destruction of its weapons of mass destruction program, and access to Libya's oil fields.

In September, 2008, Ban Ki-moon traveled all the way to Qaddafi's home town, Sirte, where he praised his "very important and constructive role" in mediating a peace deal that ended fighting between Chad and Sudan. But, just one year later, Qaddafi lived up to his reputation as the world's leading eccentric, delivering a hour and forty minute rambling address to the U.N. General Assembly in which he tore up the U.N. Charter, denounced the U.N. Security Council as a terror organization, demanded war crimes investigations into former U.S. President George W. Bush's and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's conduct of the Iraq war. He even insisted that the U.N. open an inquiry into the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

While that performance was tolerated as a somewhat amusing circus, the organization quickly turned on the Libyan leader after he launched a bloody crackdown on protesters in Feb. 2011. The U.N. Security Council that he had so bitterly reviled authorized a bombing campaign that helped bring him down, and then ordered the International Criminal Court prosecutor to conduct an investigation into crimes against humanity against Qaddafi and his closest aides."Qaddafi has lost all legitimacy," Ban told the Spanish daily El Mundo in March. "He cannot stay in power in Libya. Whatever happens, he has to go."

Courtesy of the United Nations

Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali

Ousted Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was the first casualty of the Arab Spring, when he was forced to flee the country he ruled for more than 24 years after weeks of riots. Since taking flight, Ben Ali has faced allegations of corruption, cronyism, and favoritism from the current Tunisian government. But before his fall from grace, he had been lauded by top U.N. officials as a model for the region. Following a meeting with Ben Ali, Ban Ki-moon told reporters:

"I commended his leadership under which the Tunisian people have been enjoying political, economic, social stability, and sustained economic growth over the rate of [5 percent] during the last 20 years, goes to the great leadership of President Ben Ali. I also commended the smooth progress in meeting and realizing the Millennium Development Goals of the Tunisian Government. And I hope that this would be a good example to many other countries in the region."

Courtesy of the United Nations

Hosni Mubarak

The former Egyptian leader was a towering figure in U.N. and Middle East diplomacy during his 30-year reign, and no diplomatic visit to the region was complete without a stop in Cairo or Sharm El Sheik. Mubarak's influence at the U.N. was so great that he even succeeded in appointing his own Egyptian candidate, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, as secretary general. In his first meeting with Mubarak in March 2007, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon accorded the Egyptian leader the reverence one might confer on an elder statesmen, hailing Mubarak as one of the "most respected leaders in the region," a font of deep knowledge and experience in Middle East peace. "I was very happy to see him in still very dynamic leadership and as secretary-general I count on the counsel of President Mubarak and the support of Egypt to address all the problems in this region," said Ban.

Fast forward to Feb. 2, when Ban, joined by British Prime Minister David Cameron, condemned Mubarak's government crackdown as "unacceptable" and urged the aging leader to move aside to allow a transition to new government. At the same time, Ban sought to credit the United Nations with having been on the side of the forces of reform all along, saying that the U.N. Human Development reports on the Arab world had "warned" about the need for change for the past decade.

While it is true that the reports, which were produced under the guidance of former deputy secretary general Mark Malloch Brown in the face of intense institutional resistance, there is little in the public record showing that Ban or any of his predecessors were delivering that message in their public comments. Mubarak, meanwhile, is facing charges of complicity in the killing of protesters during the popular uprising that ousted him from power.

Courtesy of the United Nations

Bashar al-Assad

For two generations, the late Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad and his son, President Bashar al-Assad have been viewed as vital players in establishing a greater Middle East peace, attracting a constant stream of international dignitaries to Damascus. In his first visit as U.N. secretary general to Syria, Ban paid homage to Bashar, saying he was encouraged by his commitment "to cooperate in all matters related to peace and security in this region." Never mind that everyone knew that Syria was arming anti-Israeli insurgents in Lebanon, and allowing arms and insurgents to cross its borders into Iraq. "Syria is a very important country and I expect that Syria can play a very constructive role in bringing peace and security to this region," Ban said in April 2007. 

But in recent months, Ban has sounded a far less diplomatic tone, badgering Assad, even refusing his calls for stretch back in June. The U.N.'s top human rights champion, Navi Pillay, meanwhile, has called on the U.N. Security Council to authorize an investigation into rights violations in Syria by the International Criminal Court prosecutor. Ban has all but accused Assad of lying to him when the Syrian president pledged in a subsequent conversation to halt his military crackdown on unarmed protesters. "It's been almost six months," Ban complained in a recent press conference. "I have been speaking with him several times, and he made all these promises, but these promises have become now broken promises." For the time being, Assad has shaken off the mounting pressure from the United States and European powers to step down, relying in part on Security Council countries -- including China, India, and Russia -- that have blocked the adoption of U.N. sanctions. But don't expect to see him addressing the assembled leaders at this year's General Assembly session.

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Laurent Gbagbo  

Deposed Ivoirian President Laurent Gbagbo began his political career as a political outsider, a union activist who was imprisoned twice by the country's ruler, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, and forced into exile in France. Gbagbo returned to Ivory Coast, where he became president in 2000. Two years later, the country slid into civil war. But he repeatedly refused to allow democratic elections to take place after his mandate ended in 2005, and continued to be recognized as Ivory Coast's president until late 2010, when he was declared the loser in an election race against long-time rival, Alassane Ouattara. Gbagbo refused to accept the U.N.-certified election results, and launched a campaign of military intimidation against Ouattara's supporters and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast.

In January 2011, forces loyal to Gbagbo unleashed a systematic campaign of harassment that severely diminished the U.N. mission's capacity to protect civilians. An assortment of pro-Gbagbo regular army forces, youth militia, foreign mercenaries, and special forces blocked U.N. food and fuel deliveries, torched vehicles, heaved Molotov cocktails at U.N. installations, and shot and kidnapped U.N. peacekeepers. But the attack on the U.N. was short-lived. Backed by French air and ground forces, the United Nations helped mount a campaign against Gbgabo and his forces. Following a French military operation against Gbagbo's palace, a team of Ivoirian forces loyal to Ouattara detained Ggabgo, his wife Simone, and family.

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Ali Abdullah Saleh

Yemen's long-ruling president Ali Abdullah Saleh is the epitome of a political survivor, overcoming a politically disastrous decision to back Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, prompting diplomatic reprisals from the United States and from Kuwait, which ejected Yemeni workers from the country.

But Saleh was able to convince the United States that he could be a useful ally in the war on terrorism following the 9/11 attacks, providing intelligence on terrorist groups and allowing the United States to conduct drone attacks against suspected al Qaeda figures operating out of Yemen. In a Jan. 2010 meeting with Gen. David Petraeus who was, at the time, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Saleh pledged his commitment, saying that he would claim responsibility for those attacks. "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours."

Then came the Arab Spring and widespread protests. Saleh promised a transition out of power, but again and again reneged, even going so far as to reject a compromise solution from the Gulf Cooperation Council. Then, in June, Saleh fled the country for Saudi Arabia to seek medical treatment for serious burns incurred during a rocket attack against his palace. He has not returned to his country. It appeared that Saleh had retired from political life, but he has since refused to resign his presidency, and forces loyal to Saleh mounted another brutal crackdown on demonstrators over the weekend.

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Ratko Mladic

During the Bosnia civil war, Bosnian Serb military commander, Ratko Mladic, inspired such fear in the hearts of U.N. brass that they once warned him about incoming NATO airstrikes because they were afraid it would just make him mad. As Samantha Power describes in her biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. commander alerted Maldic to the NATO air strikes to halt a move against the Bosnian town of Gorazde "in order to avoid inflaming Serb tempers." The forewarned Serb tanks shot down a British Sea Harrier with a shoulder-fired missile," the first time in NATO's history that a plane had been shot down in a combat operation.

Mladic, now 69, cuts a far less terrifying figure. Captured in May by Serbian police and extradited to the Hague, he has been indicted on 11 counts of genocide and war crimes -- accused of ordering the slaughter of more than 7,000 men and boys in the largest mass killing in Western Europe since World War II. He remains defiant in the face of his accusers: "I was just defending my country."

Courtesy of the United Nations 

Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Khalifa has come under withering fire from human rights groups for violently repressing anti-government demonstrators and opposition figures. In March, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay denounced the government's "shocking" use of force against peaceful demonstrators, warning that its efforts to prevent medical workers from treating the wounded might violate international law. That same month, Ban Ki-moon's office issued a statement expressing "his deepest concern over reports of excessive and indiscriminate use of force by the security forces and police in Bahrain against unarmed civilians, including, allegedly, against medical personnel." But Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, possesses a powerful ally in the United States. It has largely avoided the kind of scrutiny and censure bestowed on other repressive Arab governments, such as Syria. The United States, meanwhile, has made it clear it would oppose any discussion of Bahrain's conduct in the U.N. Security Council. And thus it's not surprising that King Hamad, with friends in high places, is in town this week for the U.N. General Assembly. It's been a big year for the United Nations, but not everything has changed.

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The List

Building Palestine

A short visual history of an awfully contentious idea.

There is nothing more permanent in the Middle East than those institutions meant to be temporary. One of the most prominent examples of this phenomenon is the Palestinian National Authority (PA), which was intended as a 5-year interim organization while the Israelis and Palestinians negotiated a final-status agreement -- and which is now entering its 17th year of existence.

The PA sprung from the Oslo Accords, a series of negotiations signed in Sept. 1993 that sought to provide a framework of negotiations for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Though formally established the following year, over time, the PA's powers and responsibilities were more clearly defined: A 1995 agreement divided the Occupied Territories into "Area A," where the PA had responsibility over security-related and civilian matters; "Area B," where the PA only had control over civilian issues; and "Area C," where the Israelis remained in control.

But despite these best-laid plans, the PA still exists -- and has never evolved into a full-fledged state for the Palestinians. When PA President Mahmoud Abbas takes the Palestinian case to the U.N. Security Council this week, he is in effect throwing his hands up in exasperation at the history of false starts and broken promises that have characterized direct negotiations with Israel.

Above is the handshake that started it all: U.S. President Bill Clinton stands between Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn, after the two longtime antagonists signed the Oslo Accords.

J. David AKE/AFP/Getty Images



The May 1994 Gaza-Jericho agreement signed by the Israeli government and the PLO, the official representative of the Palestinian people, laid out the structures and authority of the PA in greater detail, and sketched out a plan for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The treaty's preamble reaffirmed Israeli and Palestinians' "determination to live in peaceful coexistence, mutual dignity and security, while recognizing their mutual legitimate and political rights."

In the heady days following Oslo, it appeared that the two sides might even be capable of living up to those lofty sentiments. Here, Palestinians in the West Bank city of Jericho cheer as they watch Arafat sign the accord in Cairo.

MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

The creation of the PA also introduced a new phenomenon into Palestinian politics: elections. In January 1996, Palestinians went to the polls in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem to vote for a president and representatives to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).

The election represented a ratification of Arafat's preeminent position in the Palestinian national movement. He was elected president with almost 90 percent of the vote, and his Fatah party captured 55 of the PLC's 88 seats. Hamas, the more radical Islamist party, boycotted the elections as lending validity to the Oslo process, which it opposed.

SVEN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

In October 1998, President Bill Clinton's administration finally convinced Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to sign the Wye River Memorandum. The agreement, which was intended to help fulfill the promise of the Oslo Accords, transferred 13 percent of the area in the West Bank and Gaza under full Israeli control ("Area C") to full or partial Palestinian control. In exchange, the Palestinians agreed to deepen its security cooperation with the United States and Israel, and crack down on the supply of illegal weapons within the Palestinian territories.

Brad Markel/Liaison

In the summer of 2000, what was intended to be a five-year process to reach a solution on all outstanding issues in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was in its sixth year -- and Clinton's second term was nearing its end. Eager to ink a Mideast peace deal that would cement his foreign policy legacy, the U.S. president invited Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat to Camp David in a bid to reach a final status agreement.

Though the two sides made notable progress on the territory of the nascent Palestinian state, negotiations stalled over the status of Jerusalem as a shared capital and the Palestinian demand for the "right of return" for refugees. The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians released a statement at the end of the summit saying that "they were not able to bridge the gaps and reach an agreement," despite conducting negotiations "unprecedented in both scope and detail."

For Clinton, there was little doubt who to blame for the summit's failure. As he recounts in his book, My Life, when Arafat called him a great man, he responded, "I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you have made me one."

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The failed peacemaking efforts would soon give way to bloodshed. After Israel's conservative opposition leader Ariel Sharon's visit on Sept. 28, 2000, to Jerusalem's Temple Mount -- one of the contested religious sites that had caused peace talks to collapse only months earlier -- clashes broke out between Palestinians and the Israeli security forces. The unrest, which came to be known as the Second Intifada, would rage for over four years and claim over 4,000 lives.

Another casualty would be the PA's state-building efforts. Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation collapsed as the Second Intifada gained momentum, and the chance of Israel ceding control over territory to the PA became a distant dream.

Here, a Palestinian youth holds a stone in his blood-stained hand after carrying a slain Palestinian protester outside Jerusalem's Old City in December 2000.

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In an effort to contain Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government started construction on a wall to separate the West Bank from Israel. Alternatively called an "anti-terrorist fence" by the Israeli government and an "apartheid wall" by Palestinian organizations, the barrier has become one of the most contentious symbols of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. While the barrier mostly follows the "Green Line," which marked the boundary between Israel and the West Bank before the 1967 war, it encroaches on the West Bank at a number of points -- a fact that Palestinians see as a violation of their territory.

Above, journalists walk along the 26-foot high wall outside the Palestinian town of Qalqilya in June 2002.

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On Nov. 11, 2004, Yasser Arafat, the grand old man of Palestinian politics, passed away in a Paris hospital. With the Second Intifada still raging, his funeral took place in Cairo, and he was buried in the West Bank city of Ramallah -- still miles away from Jerusalem, which he had envisioned as the capital of a new Palestinian state. One PA aide mourned his death as a loss of "the tutor, the leader, the son of Palestine, its symbol, the builder of its modern nationalism and the hero of its battle for freedom and independence."

The death of Arafat, who had dominated Palestinian political life and concentrated power in his own hands, quickly reverberated through Palestinian politics. New groups and actors, which he had previously been able to keep under his sway, would soon come to the fore.

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The first promotion following Arafat's death went to his longtime deputy, Mahmoud Abbas. The former PA prime minister was selected as the head of the PLO only hours after Arafat's death, and went on to win the Palestinian presidential election in January 2005 with over 60 percent of the vote.

Above, Palestinian workers erect a billboard supporting Abbas's candidacy in Gaza City on Dec. 27, 2004.

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In May 2003, the hawkish Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shocked the Israeli public by saying that the Israeli "occupation" of the West Bank and Gaza "can't continue endlessly.... I don't think that's right." By that December, Sharon had laid out a plan for Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, saying that while he would like to have a Palestinian partner in peace, "I do not intend to wait for them indefinitely."

The withdrawal plan provoked intense political battles within Israel, and fractured Sharon's own Likud Party. But under Sharon's direction, Israel withdrew all of its military forces and dismantled all of its settlements in Gaza by September 2005 -- providing the Palestinian Authority with its first real opportunity for self-rule.

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They didn't go quite as planned. The balance of power in the PA was turned on its head in the Jan. 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, in which Hamas seized 74 of 132 seats. The victory of the Islamist party -- which refused to renounce violence or recognize Israel's right to exist -- precipitated a crisis with Israel and the PA's international patrons. Following the election, the George W. Bush administration and the European Union cut off contact with the PA, and suspended assistance to the organization.

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Tensions between Fatah and Hamas soon spilled into the streets, paralyzing the PA. By December 2006, running clashes between the rival militias had become a regular feature of life in the occupied territories. The fighting climaxed in June 2007, when Hamas forces captured the PA's Preventive Security Headquarters in Gaza and overran Fatah positions throughout the Strip. Abbas responded by dissolving the Palestinian unity government, declaring a state of emergency, and cracking down on Hamas supporters in the West Bank.

Above, Hamas militants celebrate after taking a building belonging to Abbas supporters in the city of Rafah.

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The Second Intifada, the Hamas-Fatah conflict, and the stagnation of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process had all conspired to undermine the PA's authority. But in August 2009, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad -- an American-educated technocrat -- launched an initiative to revive the organization's promise. Fayyad's plan, titled "Ending the Occupation: Establishing the State," was intended to establish a blueprint for institution-building so that Palestine would be ready to establish a state within two years.

ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images

Fayyad quickly earned a reputation in Israeli and international for his transparent, efficient use of funds. In April 2011, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund both determined that the PA had established institutions that were strong enough to sustain a state. "Significant reforms still lie ahead for the PA -- but no more than those facing other middle income countries," read the World Bank report.

However, as past experience has shown, the PA's success is largely based on the internal unity of the Palestinian movement, and the willingness of the international community to support its goals. Whether Abbas's statehood bid at the United Nations this September advances that end, or derails it, still remains to be seen.

Above, Palestinians rally outside the U.N. building in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Sept. 8, 2011.

ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images