Monday, January 26, 2009

hello Ambassador Rice

Well, President Obama's new Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, arrived today at the UN and had her first press encounter after presenting her credentials to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

No major surprises from this stakeout. My initial thoughts:

1. The rhetorical contrast to the Bush Administration is clear. Rice immediately got it started by saying:

President Obama's view is clear: that our security and well-being can best be advanced in cooperation and in partnership with other nations, and there is no more important forum for that effective cooperation than the United Nations.

Unlike John Bolton, who attempted to have all references to the UN's Millennium Development Goals expunged from the General Assembly's Outcome Document when he arrived in 2005, Rice said that the MDGS "will now be America's goals as well."

2. The United States recognizes that the UN has multiple organs. The Bush Administration worked through the Security Council at the UN. It completely ignored the General Assembly and didn't have much to do with the Secretariat either. Compare this with Rice's four major policy goals that she outlined in her testimony to Congress:
- strengthening peacekeeping
- climate change
- nonproliferation
- poverty reduction

Of these, only the first and third fall within the Security Council's purview at all. On peacekeeping, Rice seemed more interested in reforming and preparing the Department of Peacekeeping to deal with complex security challenges in new peacekeeping missions than authorizing new ones. Nonproliferation, of course, is the purview of the IAEA except in special cases like Iran and North Korea. Poverty reduction is mostly dealt with through the UN agencies like UNDP (an organization detested by Republicans). And the UN's process on climate change was actively thwarted by the Bush Administration, which childishly held its own climate conference specifically to undercut the authority of the UN process. Obama, by contrast, is overhauling US environment policy as you read this.

3. On Iran, we can expect "direct diplomacy." Rice:
[W]e remain deeply concerned about the threat that Iran's nuclear threat poses to the region, indeed to the United States and the entire international community. We look forward to engaging in vigorous diplomacy that includes direct diplomacy with Iran that includes continued collaboration and partnership with [Russia, China, the UK, France, and Germany], and we will look at what is necessary and appropriate with respect to maintaining pressure towards that goal of ending Iran's nuclear programme. The dialogue and diplomacy must go hand in hand with a very firm message from the United States and the international community that Iran needs to meet its obligations as defined by the Security Council, and its continued refusal to do so will only cause pressure to increase.

4. Obama will remain silent on Gaza no more.
Rice: With respect to Gaza, let me say that you have heard the President speak very forthrightly about his grave concern about the current humanitarian crisis. this is an issue that we will have an opportunity to discuss with the Council tomorrow, and it is our desire to contribute in a very active and concerted way along with other members of the international community to respond effectively to those humanitarian needs, but what is required is a durable ceasefire, and we will work diplomatically and through other means to try to support efforts to ensure that that ceasefire is lasting and in that context for border crossings to open and be available for humanitarian as well as day to day economic development imperatives. And the President will be meeting with his new special envoy, Senator Mitchell, and as Senator Mitchell goes out to the region later this week, has underscored the United States commitment to be engaged in an active and sustained way, from the earliest days of this Administration, in the longer term effort to promote a peaceful resolution of the conflict based on two states living side by side in peace and security.

5. Genocide prevention will continue to be talked about in strong terms and acted upon in weaker ones. Rice, noted for being strong on genocide, said that "[t]he President has spoken of his commitment to act with determination in the face of genocide" as well as poverty and disease. She also, controversially in my view, referred to the genocide in Darfur as "ongoing." Yet, even after being goaded by a question from CNN that led with the fact that Democrats were in power when Rwanda happened, check out her response:

Q. ... What specifics will you bring here, the administration, or will it be more of the same? ...
Rice. Well, obviously we remain very deeply concerned about the ongoing genocide in Darfur. The priority at this point has to be effective protection for civilians, and in that regard our effort and intention will be [as we discussed with the SG] effective efforts to support the full and complete deployment of UNAMID so that there is the capacity on the ground to effect that civilian protection. Obviously we will continue to look at what is necessary to deal with any obstruction, continued violence, or reprisals that may occur anyway or may emanate as a result of a potential indictment, and we want to be supportive of the special envoys efforts to negotiate a lasting peace and resolve the underlying political differences.

So, uh, deploy UNAMID, pressure Sudan into cooperating, protect civilians, support the political process. That kinda sounds, oh, exactly like what we've been doing for 3 years. Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favor of that, and I think "stronger" action would backfire or be ineffective, and the UNAMID/political process tack the UN and the Bush Administration have taken since 2006 is probably the wisest course. But let's not pretend that this is anything different.

All in all, Rice performed well in her first press encounter, drawing clear distinctions from previous US policy while giving intelligent, cogent answers on how to advance US policy through the UN. The talking part was a success. Now comes the doing, and at Turtle Bay that's always the hard part.

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