A Multilateral Mess

The Obama adminstration announced yesterday that it's withdrawing from the UN group preparing for the "Durban II" conference. Multilateralism, the new team is fast discovering, isn't everything it's cracked up to be.

The administration's foreign-policy performance has been uneven so far--with this debacle merely the most obvious mess. Where some had believed President Obama would pursue a moderate, pragmatic course, his administration increasingly seems not only highly ideological, but naive and uninformed--exposing and endangering America and its allies.

One example of pure ideology was having the United States engage in preparations for "Durban II," a UN "anti-racism" conference in April intended to update a 2001 conference (held in Durban, South Africa). Ostensibly designed to find common global ground against racism, Durban I instead focused on isolating and delegitimizing Israel as "racist."

There was no compelling need for President Obama to parachute into Durban II. As he has done in many other cases, he could've blamed everything on the Bush administration.

Durban I was also, just below the surface, profoundly anti-American. It was so offensive that the United States walked out rather than dignifying the final conference document, even by voting against it.

This courageous act, however, became a basis for complaints about President Bush's "unilateralism" and "abandonment" of diplomacy. On the international left, these mantras became a theology that the new administration now seeks to advance in a variety of foreign-policy areas.

By joining preparatory work for Durban II, however, the White House has proven not only naive, but destructive. The move isolated our ally Israel, embarrassed our ally Canada (which had already announced its boycott of Durban II) and cut off at the knees several European allies who were on the verge of announcing their Durban II boycotts.

How's that for "diplomacy"?

Of course, the State Department rarely encounters a conference it doesn't want to attend. Left to themselves, State's bureaucrats would never have walked out of Durban I--or withdrawn from the looming mess of Durban II.

The administration has now effectively admitted its mistake by withdrawing from the Durban II preparations. But why did it get involved in the first place?

Undoubtedly, a combination of several separate agendas converged. First was the president's own desire to practice diplomacy without regard to strategic calculations. Second, several key advisers, including UN Ambassador Susan Rice, saw this as a chance to show their independence of Secretary of State Clinton--an early indication of a coming turf battle that could ultimately cause Obama's foreign-policy machinery to seize up completely.

And finally, State's bureaucracy provided essentially no options other than its own predilection to travel to the world's great meeting centers, such as Geneva where Durban II preparations are under way.

The Obama team underestimated how bad the draft Durban II final declaration was, and how hard it would be to change it. Moreover, the vast mass of offensive language already in that document was not changed at all. Consistent with long UN practice, it was always inconceivable that Durban II would not endorse the hateful outcome of Durban I. If it was unacceptable to the US before, why should it not remain unacceptable now--thus precluding another administration reversal?

Ironically, there was no compelling need for President Obama to parachute into Durban II. As he has done in many other cases, he could've blamed everything on the Bush administration, saying that Durban II was so far along that there was no real chance for a fresh start. In this time of Obama-mania, no one would have demurred.

Instead, the new administration displayed its fundamentally ideological proclivity toward unfocused "engagement" by intervening in Durban II, a decision sadly lacking in moderation or pragmatism.

This miscalculation will undoubtedly damage President Obama, but even worse it will harm larger American interests by opening us to the kinds of challenges that our adversaries are only too willing to mount. Looking ahead, for example, life in the UN General Assembly will now become even more contentious and unproductive for the United States.

Will the adminstration learn its lesson, and now opt against climbing on board the discredited UN Human Rights Council (which is something of a full-time Durban)? I'm doubtful.

If this is the opposite of Bush administration "unilateralism," and what we will suffer through for four more years, it is bad news indeed.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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