October 31, 2010

Obama at the UN: International Operators Are Standing By (originally posted November 10, 2008)

On January 20, rather than immediately retracting the confrontational image perceived by so many during most of the Bush years, the new Administration may take advantage of the unpleasant status quo and of Barack Obamas credibility as an agent of progress.

As the Obama-Biden transition team takes over its temporary office space across from the White House, the world and the United Nations are optimistically curious about the internationalist agenda of the next U.S. President. As those preparing the new U.S. strategy know well, new politics has not overtaken the UN or many of the regimes represented at UN headquarters in New York and Geneva.

Perhaps the United States should be engaged in the Human Rights Council, or even the pre-flawed Durban anti-racism Review Conference scheduled for April 2009, or challenging Russia and China to admit their own national interest that
s release of U.S. hostages on the day of his inauguration, one more opportunity for Ayatollah Khomeini to punish Jimmy Carter, but it was clearly a good thing for the United States.

By exacting a price for joining the high-profile human rights mechanisms, and possibly even giving a second chance to the International Criminal Court, the post-Bush United States might be able to strike a better deal if it does so before the diplomatic swords are turned into ploughshares.
sticking it to George W. Bush is no longer on the menu. Ronald Reagan was not directly responsible for Iran


European governments will be hoping to avoid a boycott of Durban II, and U.S. participation will give them tremendous cover. Having made an unambiguous non-decision to not participate in this review process of commitments from the infamous 2001 Durban Conference, the United States must now be wooed to attend. If the enlightened Obama administration does not send a representative, this will cast an ugly blemish on the claims that anti-Israel rhetoric and declarations have any legitimacy.

If, if, if. If, early in 2009, Washington sets out specific conditions for its participation at Durban II, particularly regarding the draft outcome document, it will give Europeans and other would-be facilitators the impetus and burden of taking a strong position themselves. The consensus statement delivered by the European Union at last months Preparatory Committee session in Geneva avoided any mention of the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel focus of Durban I or the already blatant anti-Israel language being readied for Durban II. If the Europeans are unable or unwilling to stand up to those Arab and Islamic states reshaping the universal fight against racism into a show trial of Israeli practices, then few independent thinkers will blame the United States during its global honeymoon. If there are guarantees of a responsible outcome document, while keeping measured references to Islamophobia (though Islam is not racially defined) as well as the settling of African slavery accounts, the United States can agree to attend for as long as the agreement holds.


The Human Rights Council was an over-promised and under-prepared successor to the old Human Rights Commission. Ironically, while its first two terms have been even more focused on allegations against Israel at the expense of most other countries in the world it continues to enjoy widespread benefit of the doubt because it was billed as the great salvation, and because the UN system sees no way back. In fact, the state-by-state Universal Periodic Review is a dramatic innovation in principle, despite the early evidence that governments are reluctant to hold each other accountable for enforcing human rights commitments.

Durban II will come and go, but the Human Rights Council will be around for years and there may be no better moment for the United States to enter with some advantage. The United States might secure a commitment from European governments
especially from the selectively neutral Swiss hosts
that if a majority of the Council members supports excessive demonization of Israel, there will be no compromise resolution that merely accuses Israel of war crimes or genocidal acts while omitting any references to those deliberately targeting Israeli children and schools. Although the formative stage of the Council is already far along, the United States may still be able to wrest some human rights progress out of this process and limit the tired diplomatic tendency to blame Israel and go home early. This window of opportunity is already closing, and Inauguration Day is still ten weeks off.


China and Russia know from firsthand experience that Iran cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons. Just as the United States has used Iranian President Ahmadinejad
s loose lips to secure initial sanctions against the Iranian regime, Beijing and Moscow have used Washingtons full-blooded Middle East policy to anger and scare Americans about Iranian missiles raining down on Cleveland. As much as the Chinese and Russian governments want to impede Iran
s nuclear weapons program, they have also taken full advantage of the opportunity to thwart and occasionally to humiliate President George W. Bush. It is a risky but inexpensive way to maintain a sense of superpower pride.

Within Iran probably 2-3 years away from achieving some form of deliverable nuclear weapon, and a new team about to land in the White House, there is a need and opportunity to focus Great Power cooperation on effectively limiting Iran
s post-Bush options. Rhetorical competition aside, this means reaching an understanding with the Russians and Chinese that this is not about saving face in Iraq or improbably winning Lebanon. It must be about keeping nuclear weapons out of Irans hands, whatever that takes whether through the UN Security Council or through direct and firm intervention by the very persuasive Chinese and Russians. Maintaining the self-image of the lone superpower among real Americans is not worth the price of an Iranian nuclear capability.


Americans were instrumental in conceiving of an International Criminal Court, which the U.S. Government subsequently rejected on the rationale that U.S. soldiers might be subject to prosecution. Its roots go back to the Nuremburg trials following World War II, where the masterminds and henchmen of Hitler
s Third Reich faced international justice for atrocities unprecedented in modern history. The ad hoc nature of Nuremburg has been replicated, most recently for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, but a standing court to try individual perpetrators and allow societies to rehabilitate themselves is indispensable to ensuring peace and political stability. With an expanded Democratic majority in the United States Senate and many Republicans committed to U.S. moral leadership, 2009 offers a new opportunity for the United States to address outstanding concerns from a position of strength and finally sign on to this fundamental instrument of international law.

There are many flaws in the United Nations system, particularly at the political level. The reality of 192 dictatorships and democracies each owning a vote in the General Assembly is not going to change. President-elect Obama has already emphasized that this is the imperfect world the United States seeks to lead toward the right path. Despite the unpopularity of many U.S. leaders and policies during the past several years and at other times in history, most citizens of the world still see America as a beacon and an ideal. This is a tremendous asset and a unique burden. There is no time to waste.

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