When President Obama arrives in Jerusalem for the first time as the United States President, he will undoubtedly brief Israeli officials on his three-week old proposal to solve the Iranian nuclear crisis. Ironically, the president’s new policy shift is still mostly unknown in the U.S. because it has been deliberately ignored by U.S. political reporters. Continue reading
Today, President Obama will be the first U.S. President to visit Burma. The unprecedented trip is a celebration for the second largest country in Southeast Asia. It’s also a remarkable achievement since Burma only recently held national elections in 2010 after holding the leader of the democratic opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest for 21 years. Continue reading
Most reporters haven’t been following Ambassador Susan Rice’s performance at the United Nations since her appointment in January 2009. To many journalists, Rice’s misleading interviews on the five Sunday Shows the weekend after the 9/11/12 terrorist attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others were one of the first times they had heard from her. To veteran foreign policy observers, Rice’s shameful performance that Sunday was one of many blunders over the last four years. Continue reading
You can’t blame the Palestinians for trying. Over the last few years, the Obama Administration has encouraged the Palestinians to make bold moves. While shifting U.S. policy away from Israel, President Obama clearly and definitively told the Palestinians to reject violence but plan for statehood. Within five months of taking office, Obama spoke in Cairo to a massive Muslim audience in what the White House billed as the President’s first major address on Israeli-Palestinian relations. Arab leaders were hopeful and sat waiting to see if the new President of the United States with a Muslim father would change the status quo. And Obama didn’t disappoint. In his speech, Obama made clear: “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” The President went on to celebrate the Muslim faith like no other U.S. leader had. Arab leaders believed their time for equality had come – and Obama was on their side.
In that June 2009 speech, Obama apologized for American military might, Guantanamo Bay, the Iraq war, colonialism and even what he called our “self-interested empire”. The Arab audience had found an American who understood them. After rebuking anti-Semitism and the tragedies of the Holocaust, Obama made an unusual comparison: “On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.” Obama had squarely placed Muslims and Christians on one side and against Israel. He went on to say, “The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.” It was the early sign Arab leaders were looking for from the new President. They saw the President’s comparison between the Holocaust and the plight of the Palestinians as an indication that statehood and international acceptance would come. Israeli leaders saw the comparison as a sign that the U.S. President could make radical changes to venerable American-Israeli policies.
After the Cairo speech, the Obama team tried to assure the Israeli government that the President would not take sides. But soon thereafter, Administration officials did. Despite long-standing U.S. policy to encourage the parties to confront their issues at the bargaining table and to adamantly reject any outside influence making unilateral decisions, Obama himself called for an end to settlements and to start negotiations using the pre-1967 borders. The Israelis outright rejection of Obama’s pronouncements were also seen by the Palestinians that Obama was going to keep the pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Obama’s Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice consistently skipped Security Council meetings when Israel needed defending and even failed to show up for the emergency session on the Gaza Flotilla incident. The Israelis felt abandoned and the Palestinians were optimistic that the U.S. was not going to protect Israel at all costs.
But in perhaps the boldest U.S. move, Rice secretly negotiated with the Arabs on acceptable language for a possible UN resolution to condemn Israel’s settlement activity. Rice’s move sent a strong and new message that making policy, rather than just encouraging the two sides to negotiate directly, may not garner an automatic U.S. veto. The Arabs were focused and excited at their new found power. When the Israelis got wind of the scheme, they cried foul. Conservative lawmakers quickly joined forces with the Israeli government to force Obama to change his position. In February of 2011, the U.S. vetoed a UN resolution on Israeli settlements that Susan Rice had started negotiations on with the Arabs. The Palestinians were furious and rightly so. After all, they had just spent weeks with Rice going back and forth on acceptable language to make Israeli settlement activity a violation of international law. Rice’s rejection of the long-standing U.S. position of only encouraging direct negotiations led the Arabs to believe they were on a different path. Previous U.S. Administrations had bluntly threatened vetos on resolutions that made unilateral declarations but Obama’s team was clearly open to the idea.
Arab diplomats also point to Obama’s 2010 statement that he wanted to see Palestine a member of the UN by September 2011 as proof that he wants them to make bold moves. While Obama has sent the same lower level diplomats multiple times to the region to encourage direct negotiations, he hasn’t sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It’s no wonder the two sides haven’t spoken formally since September 2010. Instead, the Obama strategy has been to push the Israelis to accept Palestinian demands even though their unity government includes Hamas, a group the U.S. government classifies as a terrorist organization.
The Arabs have been waiting for Obama to make his move for quite some time. Before the beginning of the Obama Administration in January 2009, candidate Obama spoke of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict in simple terms. His belief that he could bring the opposing sides together to find a solution was based on the premise that he is a likeable guy and if he could just get the two sides to sit down together their issues would be secondary. The Arabs saw Obama’s characterization of Iranian President Ahmadinejad and his willingness to directly negotiate with Hugo Chavez his first year in office as promising. While Obama’s bold moves once prompted Hillary Clinton to call him “irresponsible and frankly naïve” during her primary race against him, the Palestinians believed he would be willing to push back on Netanyahu too.
So it’s no wonder Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas exclaimed Friday, “We are going to the Security Council.” Despite some media reports that the U.S. has been working hard to convince the Palestinians to drop their bid for statehood at the UN, the Administration’s late discussions with lower level diplomats signals something different. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice spent this past week in what seemed anything but frantic. She hosted a documentary film screening, tweeted about the International Day of Democracy and Friday spent the afternoon at a local New York City high school with Congressman Joe Crowley at what was billed as a “Back-to-School” event. She didn’t even mention Israel or Palestine.
President Barack Obama arrived in India this week with a large gift in hand. After just a few short hours, Obama announced to the world that America would support India as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The support from Obama was a huge coup for the Indians but took diplomats at the UN by surprise. India, after all, was being rewarded despite the fact that it has done very little to help reform the UN. Ironically, it has been India that has stood in the way of the very sweeping reforms that will now be needed to ensure its ascension to a permanent Security Council seat. India has refused to support UN budget reforms that would remove outdated mandates and programs, refused to support tough new standards for the human rights council and has consistently worked to keep intact the outdated way dues are assessed on member nations. India, too, has paid just $11.2 million in regular 2010 UN dues but receives millions more in UN assistance due to its status as a developing nation. Rewarding India without first demanding support for basic U.S. reform efforts at the UN seems naïve at best. And agitating Pakistan while at the same time dissing Japan, which is also in the running for a permanent Security Council seat, seems to increase American security concerns in Afghanistan and North Korea.
Obama’s announcement was another blow to the real UN reform he has never sought. The Indians, after all, have led the resistance to it and Obama has validated their behavior. The Bush Administration worked hard to reform the UN and its budget process but received only scant support from other countries. While India worked hard with other developing nations to thwart most reforms proposed by the Bush Administration, Japan worked hard to implement many of the reforms the U.S. was pushing. Obama just rewarded the country working against us and dismissed the country working with us. President Bush ended up announcing the U.S.’ support for Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the Security Council only after it supported UN reform and other good governance policies. Bush’s support for Japan was a reward for good work. Obama’s support for India’s bid signals his desire to keep the UN as is. Japan pays 12.5% of the UN’s regular budget while India pays 0.5% (only a few years ago Japan was paying 19.5% signaling their growing frustration with the world body). That means India pays $11.2 million in regular UN dues compared to Japan’s $264.9 million. Further, India is a net beneficiary of the UN and its programs in that it receives more than $200 million a year from just peacekeeping payments and the UN’s World Food Program to help feed its people. A full tally of UNDP, UNHCR, UNEP and other UN programs will surely show that India’s participation in the UN is a financial boon.
Supporting India for a permanent seat on the Security Council comes at an even greater cost to the war on terror by unnecessarily upsetting Pakistan at a time when controlling the borders and mountainous regions of Pakistan is key to rooting out al-Qaida. Almost instantly after Obama’s announcement on India, government spokesmen in Pakistan issued statements pointing out that India has not lived up to its responsibility in the disputed territory of Kashmir and that it wasn’t qualified to be a global leader sitting on the UN’s most prestigious body. Pakistan’s political class has roundly criticized Obama for his decision to support India at a time when the U.S. needs Pakistan’s stalwart support. And Japan, the second most generous funder of the UN behind only the United States and one of our closest allies at the UN, was left wondering if it would get the same endorsement from Obama when the president visits Tokyo.
The Obama team’s short-sightedness in dealing with difficult international issues in exchange for quick bursts of popularity while traveling abroad has made it more difficult to make progress on U.S. priorities at the UN. Obama has shown that he is all too willing to sacrifice American security for his personal popularity as was the case with Obama’s announcement that the U.S. would no longer seek to put a missile shield in Eastern Europe while negotiating with the Russians and his flip-flop on promising to remove troops from Iraq as a candidate and telling military leaders to continue the course as President.
When President Obama arrives in Japan he should tell the Japanese taxpayers that they deserve to have a permanent seat at the UN table. President Obama should also be unambiguous that reforming the UN is the first condition for U.S. support for any nation seeking a permanent Security Council seat – even though it won’t be a popular position. He should also make clear that India hasn’t earned its seat yet.
It sounds as if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has had enough. Her new strong tone on North Korea is a welcome, albeit overdue, shift. The Obama Administration’s North Korea policy for the past 18 months has consisted of public relations ploys of pretending to get tough on the rogue state and a propensity to re-package the hard work of the Bush team and call it something new and improved. Her announcement that the Obama Administration will enforce the existing sanctions on nuclear related materials and luxury goods going in and out of North Korea is yet another example. While many members of the mainstream media have fallen for the Obama team’s marketing efforts, veteran North Korea experts and UN observers aren’t fooled. Still, Clinton’s new forceful language signaled that even she believes the current policy isn’t working and more must be done. She, seemingly alone among the Obama Administration foreign policy team, is aware that success in North Korea requires more than just talking.
What Secretary Clinton really said is that the Obama Administration will finally start enforcing the demands placed on North Korea during the Bush Administration. Although the announcement claims to be fresh and innovative, the only thing new and improved is that the Obama team is admitting that its global celebrity status isn’t enough to convince other countries to actually act on their international obligations.
Even South Korea, who has the most to lose from a provocative North Korea, isn’t buying the “new” argument from the Administration. “I don’t really think there’s anything new,” Han Sung-joo, a former South Korean foreign minister, told the Christian Science Monitor. And he is correct.
In 2006, U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton led the UN Security Council to unanimously pass an unequivocal resolution, number 1718, stating that all UN members must inspect all cargo going in and out of North Korea to ensure that there is no transfer of any nuclear related products or luxury goods. The language is absolute and written under the strongest possible terms – that is to say it acts under Chapter 7 of the UN’s charter which allows countries to use legal force to restore international peace and security. It was also passed just 5 days after North Korea conducted a nuclear test.
In 2009, 18 days after yet another North Korea nuclear test, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice and her team re-packaged resolution 1718 into their own UN resolution with the same mandates but different language in an effort to look like they were doing something new. While many in the media took the bait, analysts who took the time to look at the language of both resolutions concluded there was nothing in Rice’s resolution that wasn’t already barred in the original Bush Administration resolution. With inspections required on every ship and plane going in and out of North Korea, it’s impossible to suggest that searches are somehow new. The only thing that may be new is that the Obama team is consistently leaking the details of vessel seizures to David Sanger of The New York Times. And in return, Sanger has been all too willing to act like something is actually new with their North Korean policy.
The hard work the Bush team did in passing unanimous Security Council resolutions and the ridicule from Obama and Rice at the time now seems ironic given the poor performance the current Administration has in passing strong resolutions. Much of the blame for the weakness belongs to Rice and her habitual silence. Rice has not conducted the hard negotiations nor done the sometimes unpopular work of engaging the UN on the United States’ priority issues. When Rice does attend UN negotiations, she avoids confrontation. It took Rice 103 days to move the Security Council to issue a statement after North Korea sank a South Korean ship that killed 46 sailors. And on Iran, Rice was only able to get 12 countries to support new sanctions compared to the Bush team’s unanimous support for three separate resolutions. Secretary Clinton seems all too willing to let Rice’s failed record stand alone. Clinton has done little to help her fellow cabinet member with international negotiations and State Department insiders say that the two seldom speak or coordinate directly.
While Obama has long believed that his personal story alone would compel leaders to follow him, Clinton’s frustration with the Administration’s lack of progress on issues like North Korea and Iran is beginning to bubble up. Today’s tough talk of enforcing previous international obligations is the first sign Clinton has given that she is irritated with the weak Obama policies. But it isn’t the first time Hillary Clinton disagreed with Barack Obama’s foreign policy vision. During the 2008 campaign, candidate Clinton called candidate Obama’s ideas on rogue nations “naïve”. Clinton also criticized Obama as someone that “wavers from seeming to believe that mediation and meetings without preconditions can solve some of the world’s most intractable problems and advocating rash unilateral military action”. Clinton went on to say, “We need a president who understands there is a time for force, a time for diplomacy and a time for both.” But in perhaps her strongest criticism of Obama, she said he would need “a foreign policy instruction manual” if elected.
Obama’s foreign policy weakness and acquiescence has made him an international celebrity, but he isn’t producing the promised results on our international priorities. The Obama team’s poor performance calls into question its overly diplomatic approach and its fixation with trying to lead the world through excessive talk. But Clinton signaled that she is frustrated with just talk and wants action. Clinton’s reference to the Bush Administration’s North Korea sanctions resolution is a sure sign she wants more than a PR strategy to deal with rogue nations. It remains to be seen if the Secretary of State has enough capital inside the Administration to start teaching the President a few things about being tough with dictators.