After 17 months of diplomacy, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice was only able to get 12 of the 15 countries on the United Nations Security Council to vote to place increased sanctions on the Islamic Republic’s illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons. Yesterday, on Fox News Sunday, Rice jumped to defend the Obama Administration’s lackluster performance by claiming that previous Iran resolutions were not unanimous during the Bush Administration and that there were “abstentions”. Her strategy to minimize the Bush team’s performance in order to make her own poor performance look better isn’t factual. After so much hype about President Barack Obama’s foreign policy engagement strategy, the Obama UN resolution was remarkably weak, took too long to get and received less support than Bush’s team got in producing FIVE Security Council resolutions on Iran.
Wednesday’s vote was the first Iran resolution for the Obama team but not the first time the Security Council pressured the government of Iran to suspend all nuclear enrichment-related and reprocessing activity. In September 2008, President George W. Bush and his team wrote, negotiated and forced a vote of the 15 nations that sit on the Council. That resolution passed unanimously, including with the support of Russia and China. It was one of three Iran resolutions the Bush team got passed unanimously. Rice would lead you to believe otherwise. Two other resolutions passed with only one country voting against sanctions and one country abstaining (singular abstention, not plural as Rice claimed). Not a bad accomplishment for a team that the Obama Administration labeled devoid of friends around the world.
While the Obama team continues to tout their global fame, their popularity failed to convince Brazil, Turkey and Lebanon from voting for the sanctions resolution — despite 17 months of diplomacy. Obama’s foreign policy weakness and acquiescence has made him an international celebrity guest, but it isn’t producing the promised results on U.S. foreign policy priorities. The Obama team’s poor performance calls into question its overly diplomatic strategy to lead the world through excessive talk.
Barack Obama has been a law professor longer than he has done any other job. As an expert in Constitutional Law, he learned to intellectualize issues and map out ways to make change on paper. But Obama has very little experience dealing with issues outside the classroom or committee room. The 55 day oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a perfect study in the president’s intellectual strategy failing to produce results. Through a plethora of White House meetings with experts theorizing how the oil pipeline can be turned off, the Obama team is instructing BP rather than taking action itself. On Iran, there is some logic to the argument that we should not be afraid to speak to dictators. But the diplomatic reality is that dictators, like exploded pipelines, don’t play by rational rules.
During the 2008 Presidential campaign, Obama explained that he would speak directly to dictators like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. “The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them…is ridiculous,” he said. This argument makes sense only if you assume that the United States is just another country with no more influence than the next. And since we know that President Obama doesn’t believe America is exceptional, it makes sense to him.
But the 17 months of the Obama Presidency have proven that it actually does matter what America says – and to whom. The U.S. failed to strongly confront the Iranian regime with tough talk or multilateral diplomacy for 17 months, giving the Islamic Republic time and space to continue enriching uranium. The Administration’s delay and weakness also gave Russia, China, Brazil, Turkey and Lebanon a strong signal that the U.S. wouldn’t be leading the charge to isolate Iran, nor punish its bad behavior. The message to the world was very loud: America isn’t exceptional and you are free to ignore its wishes. Without American leadership, and yes, consequences, allies like Brazil and Turkey end up cutting their own deals with dictators like Ahmedinejad. And China and Russia are allowed to carve out economic contracts that circumvent UN demands and international sanctions.
Also during the 2008 campaign, Obama routinely called for more diplomacy and more international troops in Afghanistan. As last week’s UN vote shows, 17 months of more diplomacy from the diplomat in Chief achieved very little. Obama’s charm offense has also yet to convince our allies to give additional troops to help the Afghans, pass the Copenhagen Consensus, rally support for a no-fly zone in Sudan and put missiles in Eastern Europe. The facts show that the Bush style that Obama routinely ridiculed and derided produced better results than his exaggerated diplomacy has achieved. Bush lost two countries’ support in five Iran resolutions; Obama lost three countries’ support in one resolution.
If you are comfortable living in a world where America has no more influence than China, then you may like Obama’s softer, quieter, weaker America. Iran certainly loves the breathing room they got from Rice waiting 17 months before increasing the pressure on their illegal nuclear weapons program. And allies like Turkey, Brazil and Lebanon now find it easy to ignore Obama. It isn’t popular to say, but the world needs a strong America. The world needs an America that leads our allies and isn’t troubled by certain charges of hubris from elites on the Upper East Side of New York City or in capitals around the world. One thing is clear – Obama’s easy professorial attitude isn’t winning us votes.
Richard Grenell served as the spokesman for 4 U.S. Ambassadors to the UN – John Negroponte, John Danforth, John Bolton and Zalmay Khalilzad. And is the longest serving US spokesman at the UN (2001-2008).