FP – Foreign Policy
Obama shuns the Security Council
By David Bosco
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Before Egypt’s revolution consumed the world’s diplomatic oxygen, a nasty fight was brewing in the UN Security Council over Israel’s settlements policy. Council members were debating a draft resolution that would have condemned the settlements as illegal and harmful to the peace process. That fight appears ready to break out again, and it’s putting the Obama administration in the uncomfortable position of trying to marginalize the Security Council, an institution it has often privileged.
From the beginning of the debate on a settlements resolution, the United States has made clear its lack of enthusiasm. Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted “the only way that there will be a resolution of the conflict… is through a negotiated settlement. Therefore we don’t see action at the UN or any other forum as being helpful in bringing about this desired outcome.” Meanwhile, a group of former American diplomats and influential commentators pressured the administration to let the Security Council act.
With the Egypt crisis having ebbed, the issue appears ready to resurface. According to some reports, Lebanon and other backers of the resolution may even seek Council action this week:
Palestinian representatives at the UN will push forward with a draft resolution calling on the Security Council to condemn settlement construction, PLO Executive Committee member Saleh Raafat said Tuesday.
A vote will be held on the resolution “[d]espite all of the pressure exerted on the Palestinians and the Arab-state supporters by the US,” Raafat said.
Meanwhile, there’s no sign that the U.S. position has changed. In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, deputy secretary of state James Steinberg was adamant:
We have made very clear that we do not think the Security Council is the right place to engage on these issues. We have had some success, at least for the moment, in not having that arise there. And we will continue to employ the tools that we have to make sure that continues to not happen… The only way that this is going to be resolved is through engagement through the parties, and that is our clear and consistent position.
And in New York, U.S. ambassador Susan Rice also reacted cooly to a Russian suggestion that the Security Council ambassadors conduct a visit to the Middle East.
A number of delegations, including our own, asked a series of important questions, such as what is this meant to achieve? Why now? Why this itinerary? And, would it in fact have the stated intention of contributing to promoting greater peace and stability in the region at this quite fragile time. I can assure you that many council members, including us, were very clear that this is something we would have to consider very, very carefully, and consult with our capitals.
In the context of the last several decades, American opposition to Council action is utterly unsurprising. The United States has repeatedly blocked Council resolutions critical of Israel and has consistently sought to avoid significant Council involvement in Middle East negotiations. The reasons are clear: the United States doesn’t like the balance of power in the Council, where it is surrounded by states less accomodating of Israel, and wants to preserve its privileged position as arbiter. Historically-minded Obama administration officials may also be mindful that the Carter administration paid a political price for allowing Council criticism of Israel, an incident that led to an embarrassing retreat.