The Multilateralist

Obama shuns the Security Council

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 ...

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.

It’s not yet clear that the United States will be forced into a corner on the settlements resolution. No doubt American diplomats are still working hard to avoid a vote. But it’s possible that a Council confrontation–and an American veto–will be unavoidable.

If that does happen, expect the U.S. decision to be pilloried around the world and by many observers at home. Some of this criticism is deserved.  From any formal or legal perspective, the American position that the Security Council is not the place to handle the Middle East crisis is absurd. The Middle East crisis is one of the most enduring and serious threats to international peace and security; in theory, the Council is precisely the place to handle it. The Council passed key resolutions outlining the land for peace formula during the 1967 and 1973 wars and has had the issue on its agenda almost continuously. Moreover, American protestations that a lasting peace settlement must result from the direct negotiations between the parties could apply to dozens of situations with which the Council has engaged, often very assertively.

The strongest American case for keeping the Council away from the settlements issue is not an architectural one, it’s utterly pragmatic: that a Council resolution won’t do any good. Israel’s leaders (and most Israelis) don’t trust the United Nations, and Security Council action is as likely to harden the Israeli position as to produce concessions. Casting in Security Council stone the illegality of the settlements may make a negotiated solution harder.  What’s more, moving the Security Council to center stage on the Middle East could aggravate tensions within the body and perhaps hamper its cooperation on a host of other pressing issues.

The Americans can say, with some justification, that they’ll be left to deal with the diplomatic consequences of Council action. After all, few other Council members are ready for the body to take the lead in negotiating a comprehensive Middle East peace. Russia’s recent fondness for Security Council field trips notwithstanding, there’s little appetite in Moscow, Beijing, Paris or London for the kind of intense diplomatic engagement that would be required. It would be one thing if the other permanent Council members were champing at the bit to lead a new diplomatic offensive and saw a resolution on settlements as a first move in a coordinated series of steps. But that’s not the reality. My impression is that the rest of the Council wants and expects the United States to remain in the driver’s seat. But they also want a resolution they can feel good about.

Washington will take the hit if it vetoes the resolution; but most of the Council should get credit for a punt.

From a reader:  "If President Obama vetoes this UN resolution, it will have dire consequences to America’s relation with the Muslim world. At a time when Muslims around the world are just beginning to find their long repressed voice, they will not remain silent and will complain loudly and clearly. Obama’s famous Cairo speech will become fodder for jokes, and his much tarnished image will darken even more."

 Twitter: @multilateralist
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