Mary Robinson's Medal of Freedom

Barack Obama's decision to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson has generated unexpected but emotionally charged opposition. Appointed by then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan as high commissioner for human rights in 1997-2002, Ms. Robinson had a controversial but ineffective tenure. (Previously, she was president of Ireland, a ceremonial position.)

Criticism of Mr. Obama's award, to be officially bestowed tomorrow, has centered on Ms. Robinson's central organizing role as secretary general of the 2001 "World Conference Against Racism" in Durban, South Africa. Instead of concentrating on its purported objectives, Durban was virulently anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, and at least implicitly anti-American.

So vile was the conference’s draft declaration that Secretary of State Colin Powell correctly called it "a throwback to the days of 'Zionism equals racism,'" referring to the infamous 1975 U.N. General Assembly resolution to that effect. President George W. Bush (whose father led the 1991 campaign that repealed the U.N.'s "Zionism is a form of racism" resolution) unhesitatingly agreed when Mr. Powell recommended the U.S. delegation leave the Durban conference rather than legitimize the outcome.

Ms. Robinson didn't see it that way then, and she has shown no remorse since. In late 2002, she described Durban's outcome as "remarkably good, including on the issues of the Middle East."

Outrage over Durban reignited earlier this year when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did her best to get the United States to attend the successor conference ("Durban II") to polish Mr. Obama's "multilateralist" bona fides. Because the Durban II draft declaration reaffirmed Durban I's hateful conclusions, even the Obama administration couldn't swallow attending.

Durban is not the only reason Ms. Robinson should not receive the Medal of Freedom. Over the years she has actively opposed "the security or national interests of the United States," one of the categories of eligibility for the Medal. Those in the administration who recommended her either ignored her anti-Israel history, or missed it entirely, as they either ignored or overlooked her hostility toward America's role in promoting international peace and security. Or perhaps they share Ms. Robinson's views.

One example, particularly significant today given the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, is Ms. Robinson's strong opinions about the use of force. During the Clinton administration's (and NATO's) air campaign against Serbia because of its assault on Kosovo, for instance, she opined that "civilian casualties are human rights victims." But her real objection was not to civilian casualties but to the bombing itself, saying "NATO remains the sole judge of what is or is not acceptable to bomb," which she did not mean as a compliment.

In fact, Ms. Robinson wanted U.N. control over NATO's actions: "It surely must be right for the Security Council . . . to have a say in whether a prolonged bombing campaign in which the bombers choose their target at will is consistent with the principle of legality under the Charter of the United Nations." One wonders if this is also Mr. Obama's view, given the enormous consequences for U.S. national security.

This February, asked whether former President George W. Bush should be prosecuted for war crimes, Ms. Robinson answered that it was "premature," until a "process" such as an "independent inquiry" was established: "[T]hen the decision can be taken as to whether anybody will be held accountable." In particular, she objected to the Bush administration's "war paradigm" for dealing with terrorism, saying we actually "need to reinforce the criminal justice system." Asked about Mr. Obama's statements on "moving forward," Ms. Robinson responded that "one of the ways of looking forward is to have the courage to say we must inquire."

Ms. Robinson's award shows Mr. Obama's detachment from longstanding, mainstream, American public opinion on foreign policy. The administration's tin ear to the furor over Ms. Robinson underlines how deep that detachment really is.

John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.

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  • John R. Bolton, a diplomat and a lawyer, has spent many years in public service. From August 2005 to December 2006, he served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. From 2001 to 2005, he was under secretary of state for arms control and international security. At AEI, Ambassador Bolton's area of research is U.S. foreign and national security policy.

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