Monday, January 09, 2017
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2017, pp. 32-33
CRYSTAL BALLS DO NOT work well in the United Nations at the best of times. If you want a recipe for chaotic outcomes, then take 193 direct players, 5 of whom have an ace up their sleeve in the form of a veto, dictating to an organization with dozens of relatively autonomous agencies whose heads often apportion their allegiances to the nations who proposed them and those who finance them. And into this, Donald Trump has thrown the Tea Party-backed governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, born Sikh, converted to Methodism, one of whose few foreign policy stands mandates state opposition to BDS efforts.
On the bright side, the new U.N. representative did have the courage to oppose Trump earlier, and to oppose deportation of Muslims, and we can assume that her subcontinental origins will to some extent inoculate her against xenophobia, and perhaps even American exceptionalism. However, quite how this works for future American foreign policy in general, let alone toward the United Nations, is even more of a mystery than before.
The previous pattern was that Democratic presidents included the U.N. ambassador in their cabinet, while Republicans do not. But Donald Trump has promoted Haley to the cabinet. Was this because he was not aware of previous practice, or because he wanted a minority woman in his cabinet? Or was it a bribe to get her to give up her independent position in South Carolina?
Previous U.N. ambassadors have always had to cope with the ghost of Andrew Young, the U.N. envoy fired for meeting informally with the Palestinian representative at the U.N., so even those who privately disagreed with the Lobby’s manipulation of U.S. Middle East policy have gone along with the flow and dutifully—and shamefully—leveled the veto on the mildest criticism of Israel.
It would be difficult to piece together a coherent foreign policy from Trump’s erratic statements on the campaign trail and afterward. From one point of view, his phone conversation with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen was a welcome sign of refusal to be bullied by Beijing—but if it was not part of a considered policy, it was an indication that we have a president-elect who could puckishly start World War III with an ill-considered gesture. And to add to the confusion, it is not clear against whom he would start it!
So, on the one hand, he opined that the Israelis should pay for their U.S. weapons supplies—but on the other, he made the standard pledge of moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. But had anyone explained the intricacies of international law to him? Or, since almost every other candidate made the same pledge, did he, too, have his fingers crossed behind his back when he said it?
Trump’s nominee as defense secretary, Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis, has wisely suggested that Israeli policies in the occupied territories are a clear and present danger to U.S. forces in the region—but then wants to step up pressure on Iran, just as Netanyahu and the Lobby ordered.
We are not even sure what Trump’s views on the United Nations are. From some quarters, hostility to the organization is engendered by the member states’ insistence that Israel does not have an automatic pass for breaches of U.N. decisions. Certainly the Democratic Party has been torn for years between supporting the great creation of Roosevelt and Truman and deploring its support for Palestinian rights. Since the Republican/Likud Axis has become so prominent, the GOP has merged its pro-Israel stance with its nativist dislike of foreigners—a blend manifest in Rudy Giuliani, the curmudgeonly ex-mayor of New York who in 1995 ordered PLO leader Yasser Arafat out of a U.N. anniversary banquet.
To some extent Trump has prejudices rather than policies—but he is enough of a businessman to realize that it is often profitable to overlook reflexive aversions. Trump the realtor obviously appreciates the U.N.’s effect on property values in New York City, building one of his most outstandingly tasteless edifices just across the road from U.N. headquarters. Whatever prejudices he and his father had against African-American tenants is clearly not carried over to the many African and Arab diplomats who rent and buy his properties.
So will the policy be neglect, or will he see what other administrations, not least Bill Clinton’s, have: that the U.N. saves a lot of effort compared with being the world’s self-appointed cop? It is really difficult to say, but then that is true of previous regimes. Clinton posed as a liberal internationalist and then issued his Policy Directive 25 that vetoed any expenditure on peacekeeping that did not directly serve self-defined U.S. interests. The victims of Rwanda and Srebrenica were not, we discovered, essential U.S. interests.
In contrast, President Barack Obama amended that directive last year, in a reasoned assessment that asserted, “Multilateral peace operations, particularly United Nations (U.N.) peace operations, will, therefore, continue to be among the primary international tools that we use to address conflict-related crises.”
The crucial question is whether a Trump administration will have anything like a coherent foreign policy—and to what extent it sees the United Nations as helping in fulfilling that.
Using the old Confucian cliché of crisis as opportunity, new U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has a better chance of independence than most—even if the major powers will nominate most of his senior officials. As previously noted (see Nov./Dec. 2016 Washington Report, p. 30), elected unanimously as a former prime minister of an important, if small, power; as head of one of the U.N.’s most called-upon agencies; and even as former president of the Socialist International, he has far more experience and better international connections than Trump—or any of his cabinet members.
Interestingly, Guterres had the support of China for his candidacy, and China has upped its dues payments, so that it is now the next biggest financier, after the U.S., for U.N. operations—and provides more peacekeepers than any other great power. The U.S. might still be the “indispensable power” Madeleine Albright claimed it to be, but it has never been more dispensable than now, as its primacy is increasingly challenged.
Meanwhile, back at the U.N., Israel’s Ambassador Danny Danon has shown his heritage in the settlement movement since he became chairman of the U.N. General Assembly’s Sixth Committee, which deals with legal affairs. He is clearly enjoying himself and has expanded the toehold to annex more and more organizational territory. His latest escapade was to convene a meeting of self-appointed legal experts that included Alan Dershowitz and Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America to consider legal action against advocates of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. It appears to be a tendentious extension of the claimed privileges of the chair, but has no legal effect.
However, politically, it surely is time for the Palestinian Mission to convene a U.N. conference on how to give international legal effect to the decisions of the International Criminal Court on the applicability of the Geneva Conventions on Occupied Territories to the Israeli-occupied territories.
On Nov. 29 the U.N. commemorated its Annual Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Ban Ki-moon has been an articulate defender of international legality, not to mention humanitarian solidarity, in the region, but his statements have rarely been reported, not even in indignation by pro-Israeli press—almost as if they realized that condemning such a mild-mannered and manifestly principled person would only validate his statements. So it is only fitting that as he leaves office we reproduce his remarks:
“Recent years have witnessed two unsuccessful attempts at negotiating a peaceful settlement, three armed conflicts, thousands of dead—the vast majority of them Palestinian civilians—rampant incitement, terror attacks, thousands of rockets and bombs fired at Israel from Gaza, and an expanding, illegal Israeli settlement enterprise that risks undermining Israel’s democratic values and the character of its society. This year, the number of demolitions of Palestinian houses and other structures by Israeli forces has doubled, compared to 2015. Gaza remains a humanitarian emergency, with two million Palestinians struggling with crumbling infrastructure and a paralyzed economy, and tens of thousands still displaced, awaiting reconstruction of homes destroyed by conflict.”
While it contains the obligatory “balance” so often demanded by U.S. and Israeli representatives, the inescapable truth of who is most to blame emerges clearly from its enumeration of the details. In the General Assembly debate on the resolutions, U.S. representative Richard Erdman came out with the usual worries about “the disproportionate number of one-sided resolutions that had been designed to condemn Israel.” Interestingly, he added, “While the United States consistently opposed every effort to delegitimize Israel at the United Nations, his delegation would also continue to view Israeli settlement activity as illegitimate, corrosive and a threat to a two-state solution.”
Erdman failed, however, to identify how much of Israel Palestine occupied and how many settlements it had built there. Nor did he identify what steps Washington had taken to persuade Israel to give up its corrosive ways, short of stuffing its arsenal with offensive weapons and its treasury with cash.
In fact, he missed a golden opportunity to suggest ways to take the wind out of the sails of the international BDS movement. If the U.S. and U.N. took the action they had against South Africa, then consumers’ boycotting bath salts from the occupied Dead Sea would be totally unnecessary. ◙
U.N. correspondent Ian Williams’ book UNtold: the Real Story of the United Nations will be published by Just World Books in Spring 2017.