The Obama team at the UN is weak

Richard Grenell Contributor
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U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice has been on the job for 18 months now, but she doesn’t have much to show for it.  Her record of accomplishments and performance on behalf of the American people is embarrassing.  While Rice has been active in the social scene of Washington and The White House, a study released by the uber-serious non-profit group Security Council Report suggests that the past year has been the most inactive Security Council since 1991.  Rice missed crucial negotiations on Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium, she failed to speak out when Iran was elected to the Commission on the Status of Women and three other UN Committees, she failed to call-out Libya when they were elected to the UN’s Human Rights Council, she recently delivered an Iran sanctions resolution with the least support Iran resolutions have ever had and she called her one and only press conference with the UN Secretary General on the issue of texting while driving.  For an administration that promised to utilize the UN and improve our reputation around the world, its dinner party circuit strategy isn’t making America more secure.

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 is all too willing to avoid confrontation.  While other foreign Ambassadors speak fondly of Rice and the Obama Administration’s easy ways, they have been weak negotiators for the American people.

This lack of American leadership at the UN has resulted in the general Security Council inactivity spotlighted in the study by the Columbia University-affiliated group – Security Council Report.

The Report says:

“In 2009 the total number of Council decisions (resolutions and presidential statements) decreased by 26 percent from 2008. The number dropped from 113 to 83, the lowest level since 1991.

Resolutions dropped from 65 to 48 and presidential statements from 48 to 35.

This significant trend is also mirrored in a matching reduction in formal Council activity.  The number of formal Council meetings decreased by 20 percent, from 243 to 194.

The number of press statements, which is one indicator of Council decision making at the informal level, also decreased by 23 percent, from 47 to 36.”

While Rice launched her tenure at the UN with a glamour spread in Vogue Magazine by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz showing her kicking back in an empty Security Council Chamber, she seems to not enjoy the Chamber when it’s full of diplomats.  During the Haiti crisis, Rice was not only absent from the Security Council vote to expand the UN’s peacekeeping operation, but she also failed to call an emergency meeting in the immediate aftermath to request more help.  In fact, 7 days after the Haiti earthquake left tens of thousands of people in the streets without food or shelter, it was UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that came to the Security Council to request more troops – the American Ambassador hadn’t bothered.

Earlier this summer, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on Israel’s raid of a ship headed to Gaza — and the United States was represented by the deputy at the US Mission.  Reporters, UN members and activists were mystified as to why Susan Rice was a no-show during the roughly 12-hour negotiations which left Israel fending off global criticism without the top American diplomat to help.  The UN Security Council ultimately issued a statement on the situation in the early morning hours of Tuesday, June 1, after starting deliberations on Monday, May 31 – the American Memorial Day holiday.  Rice never showed up for any of the meetings.  Coming on the heels of Rice’s silence and absence from the meeting where Iran was elected to the UN Women’s committee and Rice’s refusal to call out Libya after it was elected to the UN’s Human Rights Council, Rice’s performance is leaving Americans wondering if she really wants to be the American Ambassador to the UN.

More than 30 human rights organizations appealed to Rice before the crucial Human Rights Council membership vote in an effort to get her to find another country to run against Libya.  The activists pleaded, “This contravenes the 2006 promise that the reformed Council would bring competitive elections, and sets a poor example.”  The groups urged Rice to do something.  But Rice ignored the human rights leaders’ appeal and didn’t try to make a competitive race for Libya.  Rice didn’t speak up to highlight the problem, didn’t try to find another candidate and couldn’t utter Libya’s name to condemn Libya’s successful election after the vote.

Rice‘s avoidance of tough negotiations on matters important to America is unfortunate, but her lack of engagement on UN budget reform is shameful.  U.S. citizens pay 22% of the UN’s regular budget, 26% of the UN Peacekeeping Budget and give millions more in voluntary contributions to a plethora of other UN programs. They deserve an ambassador who doesn’t duck a messy public fight with other countries looking to spend American taxpayers’ dollars.

But perhaps the Rice’s most astonishing failure was that she only was able to get 12 of the 15 countries on the United Nations Security Council to vote for increased sanctions on the Islamic Republic’s illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons.  On Fox News Sunday, Rice jumped to defend the Obama administration’s lackluster performance by claiming that 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.  The 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.  President George W. Bush and his team wrote, negotiated and forced a vote of the 15 nations that sit on the Council a total of five times.  Three Iran resolutions under Bush passed unanimously.  Two other resolutions passed with only one country voting against sanctions and one country abstaining (singular abstention, not plural as Rice claimed).

After so much hype about President Barack Obama’s foreign policy engagement strategy, the UN resolution was remarkably weak, took too long to get and received less support than Bush’s team’s.  Bush lost two countries’ support in five Iran resolutions; Obama’s team led by Rice lost three countries’ support in one resolution.  It’s ironic that the Obama team labeled the Bush team devoid of friends around the world.  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.

Rice has gambled this past year that keeping America unengaged at the UN is the best way to keep the Obama administration, and herself, popular with other countries.  But while the newly released report suggests that the Security Council has been cordial and pleasant in 2009, the number of crisis situations, international conflicts and peacekeeping operations haven’t decreased.  No meaningful improvement has been seen to the international issues monitored by the Security Council; in fact, the study suggests that some situations have gotten worse.  Without American leadership at the UN, countries just continue to talk and socialize at the U.S. taxpayer’s expense.

The facts show that the Bush style that Obama routinely ridiculed and derided produced better results than his exaggerated diplomacy has achieved.  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.

This article originally appeared in the Harvard Republican Alumni Network Journal.

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).