The Obama administration's decision not to attend this week's "Durban II" conference on racism in Geneva means that boycotting outrageous United Nations parleys is now officially bipartisan US policy. This is real US leadership.
The decision is likely the administration's most painful foreign-policy call to date. Nonetheless, the US boycott is a major diplomatic signal with long-term ramifications, despite the State Department's effort to bend its knee by expressing "regret" at the decision.
As depressed as backers of unconstrained US "engagement" must be, our boycott reflects an inescapable reality: The outcome of Durban II was going to be as hateful and anti-Semitic as that of the original, 2001 UN "anti-racism" conference in Durban, South Africa. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech to the parley yesterday proved the point, as he viciously attacked Israel and America. Several nations, including Britain and France, walked out in protest.
The absence of America eliminates any pretext of global legitimacy, which greatly concerns the international left. Depriving the original Durban conference of that legitimacy is exactly why the Bush administration--hesitatingly and at the last possible moment--quite properly walked out in 2001.
Not surprisingly, the leftist Human Rights Watch complained that the absence of an American delegation would leave Durban II with a lack of "diplomatic gravitas." That, of course, is precisely the point. Rep. Barbara Lee of the Congressional Black Caucus said that "this decision is inconsistent with the administration's policy of engaging with those we agree with and those we disagree with." This, too, is correct.
These reactions underline the long-term significance of President Obama's decision, which effectively reaffirms President George W. Bush's 2001 approach and makes withdrawing from UN events a respectable policy option. It legitimizes the US assertion of its interests and those of its friends and allies, rather than repeatedly succumbing to the simplistic notion that "engagement" is always preferred.
Neither the State Department nor the European Union yet fully appreciates what has happened. As part of its "regret" at missing Durban II, State said it was "deeply grateful" for "progress" made in pre-conference negotiations. Such gratitude, however, is misplaced, because these negotiations only risked further isolating America.
Too often, we see this scenario at international meetings: US opponents propose an outrageous resolution condemning some policy or action by us, or, for example, Israel. Washington opposes the resolution; the EU assures us that it, too, is opposed. Then, almost invariably, some or all EU members try to negotiate changes to the draft, which results, after arduous effort, in turning it from utterly outrageous into something "merely" unacceptable to America. Nonetheless, the EU then uses this "progress" to justify voting in favor of the now-modified text, leaving Washington even more visibly isolated.
The EU has the best of both worlds. It assures the drafters of its gratitude for making cosmetic changes and demonstrates its affection by voting in favor of the revised text. Then, the EU turns to the United States and assures us that it did the best it could to secure the changes that we had agreed were needed, and it confesses it still doesn't really like the text, even as modified. Nonetheless, it urges us to join it in supporting the revised text because it's better than where we started. America loses all around.
This pattern recurs in UN circles like the movie "Groundhog Day." In reality, the US negotiating position would be vastly improved by demonstrating a willingness to vote "no" or boycott fundamentally illegitimate UN meetings. (The only place never to boycott is the Security Council, the only UN body where America has a formal veto to protect our position.)
On Durban II, EU members, even more reluctant to withdraw than Obama, met the day before the conference opening. Many of those who decided to attend are now apparently sorry.
Even so, the precedent established by the uber-pro-engagement Obama administration, namely that America won't reflexively attend every mindless international conference, is historical.
Congratulations, President Obama; this is one you got right!
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.
A similar article entitled "Una bella lexione per l'Ue cerchhiobottista (A Good Lesson for the Impratical European Union)," was published in Liberal, Tuesday, April 21, 2009, Page 21, Column 3.