I waited for Samir Sanbar in the lounge of a large apartment building in New York City, a bronze bust of UN's second secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold sat in front of the building's entrance, staring solemnly across 2nd Avenue. Through the lounge's floor to ceiling windows, I could see the UN campus where Sanbar spent the final years of his decades long career, where he rose to become Assistant Secretary-General for Public Information, heading the UN's worldwide network of information centers, and introducing heads of state at press events. He entered the lounge wearing a jacket, tie, a blue vest, and a leather watch and radiated a sense of decorum and firmness.
Sanbar grew up a few blocks from AUB, on Hamra street—his father was Lebanon's consul general—and came of age around the time of Lebanon's independence, when the country was flush with political thinkers who would dream up the movements that would shape the Arab world for decades to come.
At AUB in the early 1950s, he studied under one of Arab nationalism's pioneers, Constantine Zurayk. “I was closer to the Arab solidarity approach. My main concept was human dignity," says Sanbar.
Though his family encouraged him to go into business, he couldn't shake the pull of journalism. “Beirut was the capital of Arab media back then, really an international media center for the whole Middle East."
For a time, he wrote a two-page column for Dar Al Sayyad, before traveling to Rome to live what he described as la dolce vita. He spent time at the famous Doney Cafe on Rome's Fifth Avenue, Via Venito. “Every aspiring screenwriter would hang around that cafe. I had a great life. Then I met an Italian count, who was working as the director general of the UN offices in Geneva. He needed someone to write in Arabic, English, and French."
Spinelli asked him to move to New York “He said, 'I tell you that as an Italian I love that you love la dolce vita and all that. But how long can you do that?'"
And so, his carefree youth came to an end when he arrived in New York in 1966, working out of UN headquarters for a time before being sent to Beirut where he helped establish the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFL). “Everything soon became interesting for me. I was involved in these significant happenings."
From his office in Beirut, he would bear witness to many seismic events that would shape the Middle East for years to come and become personally acquainted with many of the region's political and religious leaders.
During the lead up to the Iranian Revolution, he received Ayatollah Khomeini's son as a petitioner against the Shah. “We developed an inside joke. You see, he came from Qum. And when I would see him, I would say Kaifa Qum, which sounds like Kaifakum (how are you in Arabic). When Khomeini landed in Tehran from Paris, as he was getting off the plane, my secretary pointed at the screen and said, 'it's Kaifa Qum!'"
Sanbar arrived in Tehran soon after Khomeini at the height of Iran's political crisis. Of the situation in Iran at the time he says, “it was very unclear. There was no clear indication of the country's direction. I didn't try to meet [Khomeini's son] when I got to Tehran. I learned from experience not to push connections too far." Instead, he sent messages through intermediaries to those who'd taken US citizens and diplomats as hostages. “We managed to get the women released. I was a communications person, but I got pulled into things."
A few years later, he went to meet with Saddam Hussein to help mediate during the Iran-Iraq war at the presidential palace in Baghdad. “[Saddam] was not happy with me at the time. He was staring at me and not listening to the secretary general. I thought, what did I do? Then, in Arabic, he said, 'What are you doing here? Are you a mediator between us and the Persians? You should be with us, not with them.' He didn't shout. He was very reserved, polite, very cool in a sense, but curt and direct."
In 1993, he was sent as a special envoy to Eritrea to help organize that country's first post-independence election. “I told the UN that I wanted communicators, not blue helmets [referring to UN soldiers]." The emphasis for Sanbar was on human dignity and Eritreans' claim to that dignity through voting after thirty years of war. “I pushed for the factions to work together, knowing from Lebanon that if you argue, you lose."
He retired just as the United States had affirmed its decision to invade Iraq without UN approval. “Kofi [Annan, the former secretary general] came to see me. He said [the Americans] are pushing. They just want to go. And while we were talking, there were US helicopters flying around the UN building. Kofi said, 'what's going on? Are they sending a message?'"
Sanbar believes that in bypassing the United Nations approval system, the United States has undergirded a troubling precedent: the marginalization of the UN in international affairs, which has been underway for decades.
“The UN's peak influence was in the 1960s, 70s, and part of the 80s. The prep work for the US-China detente was done through the UN. UN intervention stopped the Iran-Iraq war. Even during the Cuban-Missile Crisis, U Thant [the third secretary-general] was very involved in the negotiations. He had an American and a Soviet staffer, both of whom worked out the arrangement." But the politicians, Sanbar says, have always been quick to claim credit for any success. “The UN didn't mind as long as it got solved. But that's part of the problem. We didn't claim credit for our work."
It was Sanbar's close colleague and friend, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was charged with overseeing the UN presence in Iraq. “He didn't want to go. He was making a big impact as UNHCR head, really holding governments accountable. And he was killed. My two closest colleagues, Sergio and Nadia Younes were killed in Iraq."
Was it the series of setbacks the UN faced that pushed him to retire? “No. It was because I was no longer working in the field. I was just sitting around listening to speeches, listening to ambassadors complain that their picture isn't as good today as it was ten years ago. Well, you were younger ten years ago! Oh! You didn't take my photo properly! My speech isn't right! I thought, what am I doing here listening to these complaints? I'm done."
He still attends general assembly meetings and select international gatherings in retirement. He maintains that the UN has an important role to play in the future of international relations, especially as the pace of globalization increases and world grows more connected. The UN, he says, “is a perpetual university on the human condition."