Obama, Susan Rice and the U.N. — The right approach or too cuddly?
When U.S. President Barack Obama came to power, he announced a “new era of engagement” at the United Nations. He appointed his longtime friend and foreign policy adviser Susan Rice to be his ambassador to the world body. He also raised her post to cabinet level, as some previous Democratic presidents have done, and made her a member of the powerful National Security Council.
In an August 2009 speech at New York University, Rice outlined the Obama’s administration’s new approach to the United Nations, an organization that was often criticized and occasionally ridiculed by members of the administration of former President George W. Bush. She said that from now on Washington would do away with the “condescension and contempt” that she said had crept into U.S. government attitudes toward the international community.
“We have seen the costs of disengagement,” Rice told an audience of students, academics, diplomats and policy makers. “We have paid the price of stiff-arming the U.N. and spurning our international partners. The United States will lead in the 21st century — not with hubris, not by hectoring, but through patient diplomacy.”
Relations between the United States and the United Nations have never been easy. For decades there have been the occasional calls from the political right to pull out of the organization or banish its headquarters from U.S. territory. Relations reached a low point in 2003, the year of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan branded the war an illegal act by the Bush administration.
The Obama administration kept its word. It quickly handed over more than $2 billion in new and old contributions owed to the U.N. peacekeeping department. It ended Washington’s confrontational approach to the world body, virtually ceasing all public attacks on it. In an interview with Vogue magazine, for which she was photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Rice said she believed she had met all of the other 191 U.N. ambassadors in the space of a single month. Envoys from around the world praised Rice, saying her willingness to listen and not dictate to her colleagues is refreshing. One senior Western diplomat referred to her as “Human Rice.”
But some in the United States dislike this approach. Security Council diplomats have told Reuters privately that Rice’s frequent absences from council meetings — including votes on resolutions — have not gone unnoticed. U.N. blogger Matthew Lee of Inner City Press has repeatedly suggested that Rice has dropped the U.S. push to root out U.N. corruption and improve its bureaucracy, an issue that was top priority for former U.S. ambassador and outspoken U.N. critic John Bolton. (U.S. officials reject the suggestion that Washington has dropped its anti-corruption drive.) Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida, criticized the Obama administration for taking a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, a body Washington had previously shunned for being anti-Israeli. Rice and others defended the decision, saying it was time to change the Human Rights Council from within rather than throwing stones at it from without.
The most severe attack on the new administration’s approach to the U.N. or Rice to date came from Richard Grenell, whom Bush appointed in 2001 as the spokesman to the U.S. mission to the United Nations. In a blog for the Huffington Post, Grenell accused Rice of “hanging out at the White House and not engaging seriously in New York” on important issues like Iran’s nuclear program. He took her to task for spending too much time in Washington (her children go to school there). He called her a “weak negotiator” and declared that “the U.N. and the American people deserve better.”
Rice told reporters she did not read the article by Grenell, who was well known in the U.N. press corps for his unflagging support of the Bush administration, criticism of the European penchant for dialogue and negotiations, and his forthright way of expressing displeasure at articles he disapproved of. But Rice defended her first year as Obama’s U.N. envoy, saying 2009 was “very productive.” Washington and its partners racked up “substantive accomplishments” in 2009, she said, such as the toughening of sanctions against North Korea and adoption of a Security Council resolution on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament at a council meeting that Obama himself chaired.
Grenell cited a recent analysis by Security Council Report, a think-tank affiliated with Columbia University, saying it showed how little the council accomplished last year. That analysis said 2009 saw a “dramatic drop” in the number of Security Council decisions, the lowest since 1991, without a corresponding decline in the number of serious conflicts. However, it pointed out that there were no clear reasons for the decline and noted that “more is not necessarily better.”
Grenell’s criticism generated lively discussion among members of the U.N. press corps. Although some U.N.-based reporters disliked Grenell during his eight years as the U.S. mission’s spokesman, several said privately that he made some “good points” in his blog and complained that the information flow from the U.S. mission has slowed to a trickle since Susan Rice came to town.
What do you think?
(Posted by Louis Charbonneau)