The Numbers Game

U.N. spokesperson Elisabeth Byrs writes that David Rieff's accusations of casualty count inflation are unfair.

Can David Rieff ("Millions May Die … Or Not," September/October 2011) really be serious in accusing international aid agencies -- and myself -- of using hyperbole to get donor-fatigued countries to loosen their purse strings and come to the assistance of not-really-so-badly-off people? Rieff goes even further, suggesting that some (the Hutus who fled the massacre in Rwanda in 1994, for instance) might not be worthy of any assistance at all. I'm not so sure.

One thing I do know: In January 2010, when I tried to convey the magnitude of the destruction wrought by the Haiti earthquake before a crowd of journalists at the United Nations in Geneva, I was myself one of the walking wounded, at least emotionally. This was not only an earthquake that killed hundreds of thousands of people, left more than a million homeless, and just about completely wiped out that country's infrastructure. It also killed 102 U.N. staff -- more than any other single event in history -- including many of my friends and colleagues.

I was hearing the nightmarish stories directly relayed to me by friends who had survived, including one of a colleague who was found wandering, shoeless and disoriented, days after the quake, searching for his family only to find that his children had been crushed to death under the rubble. So no, I don't think my statement at the time that "This is a historic disaster. We have never been confronted with such a disaster in the U.N. memory. It is like no other" was hyperbole, as Rieff suggests. It was a cri de coeur.

Donor fatigue is something we have to combat every day and something I can understand. What I cannot understand are the people who think we should simply give up trying to convey the real extent and impact of the many humanitarian disasters and emergencies all over the world.

U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Geneva, Switzerland

David Rieff replies:

Can Elisabeth Byrs be serious? As she knows perfectly well, but disingenuously fails to acknowledge, the view that aid should have been withdrawn from the camps in eastern Congo because they were controlled by the same groups that had orchestrated and carried out the Rwandan genocide is hardly controversial -- except, it seems, at the U.N. Many mainline relief NGOs withdrew from the camps for this reason.

As for Haiti, while I can sympathize with Byrs's shock and sense of loss over what happened in Haiti, the truth -- are we still interested in the truth or only in mobilizing people? -- is just as I stated it: It may have been the worst disaster in history for the U.N., but this is not the message Byrs was understood by her listeners as conveying. To the contrary, she was understood to be speaking of the people of Haiti.

I entirely agree with her when she says that it is essential that the real extent and impact of humanitarian disasters around the world be conveyed. My point is that by indulging in hyperbole -- and the U.N.'s public statements on the current Somali famine show that no lessons have been learned in this regard -- U.N. and NGO officials do a disservice to the truth and, by so doing, actually foment the increasing cynicism and disbelief with which their statements are now greeted.


Going for Gorby

The not-so-lame afterlife of the Soviet Union's last leader.

Anne Applebaum's article is unfair in its characterization of Mikhail Gorbachev's life after 1991 ("The Long, Lame Afterlife of Mikhail Gorbachev," July/August 2011). It also sheds little light on his role in changing the Soviet Union and facilitating the demise of communist systems in Eastern Europe.

Gorbachev, unlike many former heads of state, has shown no interest in personal enrichment. He leads three organizations that are heavily dependent on his lecture fees and fundraising to keep them going. The first is the Gorbachev Foundation -- a think tank of social-democratic orientation -- in Moscow. The second is Green Cross International, an environmental organization founded by Gorbachev in 1993. The third is a charity for children with leukemia, started by Gorbachev's late wife Raisa, for which he has been a tireless fundraiser. In addition, Gorbachev chairs the World Political Forum, which brings together former political leaders from different countries and publishes accounts of their proceedings. He has had a fruitful and public-spirited "retirement," doing far more good than most people achieve in a lifetime of work.

It was his seven years as the last leader of the Soviet Union, however, that made Gorbachev a major figure in 20th-century history. In one of the few fair paragraphs in her article, Applebaum notes that Gorbachev is blamed in contemporary Russia for things he himself opposed. That includes the breakup of the Soviet Union into 15 successor states. Gorbachev strove in the last two years of his leadership to hold together a union on the basis of a new and voluntary Union Treaty. From the summer of 1988 he was deliberately dismantling the communist system, but the disintegration of the multinational Soviet state was an entirely unintended consequence of his introduction of new freedoms and contested elections.

Gorbachev had a remarkably open mind for a man who had risen through the ranks of the Soviet Communist Party apparatus. He was a reformer rather than a revolutionary by temperament (as Applebaum correctly notes), but he evolved from a communist reformer who in 1985 wished to improve the existing system to a social democrat by the end of the 1980s. His favorite foreign interlocutors were the president of the Socialist International (and former West German chancellor) Willy Brandt and Spanish Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González.

Applebaum's criticism of Gorbachev ignores that until 1989 and 1990, when executive, as well as legislative, power was substantially moved from party to state institutions, he was well aware that he could have been ousted within 24 hours by a vote in the Politburo, followed by the endorsement of the party's Central Committee. It took remarkable political skill to pursue what Gorbachev called "revolutionary change by evolutionary means" in the face of an alarmed and increasingly antagonistic party bureaucracy, military, and KGB. From the other side, Gorbachev was under fire from radicals and nationalists for "half-measures" when, in fact, his reforms had already exceeded their wildest pre-perestroika dreams.

Finally, Applebaum regrets Lech Walesa's presence at the March charity concert in London to celebrate Gorbachev's 80th birthday. But surely Walesa's participation was entirely appropriate. Great though Solidarity's political achievements were in 1980 and 1981, and as triumphant as the movement was in 1989, Walesa's trade union was reduced to a shadow of its former self after the imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981. It was the transformation of Soviet foreign policy after 1985, together with the pluralization of Soviet domestic politics, that altered the entire political climate throughout Eastern Europe. Change in Moscow was decisive in facilitating the re-emergence of Solidarity and all that followed in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989 and 1990. And Gorbachev deserves credit for that. One trusts that Walesa understands that, even if Applebaum does not.

Archie Brown
Professor of Politics Emeritus
Oxford University
Oxford, England

Anne Applebaum replies:

Oddly enough, I don't disagree with most of what Archie Brown writes. But I'm afraid he completely missed the central point of my article: Why is Mikhail Gorbachev so deeply loathed in his own country? Why do the majority of Russians regard him as a failed leader? Of course Gorbachev was a brave reformer and an outstanding statesman. His presence and personality still loom over the history of the late 20th century. But simply to state that, again, doesn't explain the many paradoxes of his current position. My article was an attempt to do so.

Worse, Brown very much misunderstood my remark about Walesa: I don't regret the Solidarity leader's presence at Gorbachev's very strange 80th birthday celebration -- I regret that Walesa keeps company with second-rate celebrities such as Paul Anka and Sharon Stone. I regret that Gorbachev keeps company with them, too.

From ForeignPolicy.com:

PALMER: Gorbachev deserves great credit for the change he initiated. He does not deserve the blame for what Russia has become -- Yeltsin and Putin were the architects of the failure of Russia to democratize.

KEYBASHER: A couple of years back, while visiting FDR's home at Hyde Park, N.Y., I saw Gorbachev with an interpreter and a guide giving him a personal tour. Without his late wife or his late job, he looked as though he was at a complete loss for what to do with the rest of his life.