Last week, the United Nations Security Council adopted a British resolution calling for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. Resolution 1860 was a slap at Israel's self-defense, but, unusually, the United States abstained on the vote.
That's no way to lead. If Washington concluded that a harsh resolution on Gaza was warranted, the proper course was to vote for it. And that is, apparently, what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had hoped to do. Speaking to the Security Council, Ms. Rice endorsed the basic content of the British draft, saying "this resolution is a step toward our goals." She also said that the U.S. was abstaining to give Egypt's ongoing mediation efforts time to work.
The Palestinian Authority's foreign minister, however, indicates that there may have been another reason. He said publicly Ms. Rice told him just before the vote that she had "been given new instructions" (certainly from President George W. Bush) not to support the draft.
In the past, both Democratic and Republican administrations reacted to one-sided, anti-Israel resolutions by vetoing them. And if the real issue here was timing, the U.S. could have delayed the vote by threatening a veto until it was satisfied that the Egyptian mediation attempt had run its course.
Britain, France and others would likely have accepted the delay, albeit while grinding their teeth, in order to secure a U.S. "yes" vote. The Security Council culture prizes unanimity over substance--that's why most resolutions are adopted without dissent, even if substantively they are essentially mush.
Abstaining allows a resolution to be adopted (assuming it enjoys at least nine affirmative votes) without explicit support from, in this case, the U.S.
All five of the permanent members of the Security Council abstain for various political reasons. The abstainer may conclude that threatening a veto carries too high a political price on the international stage, while a "yes" vote will haunt it later on.
But abstaining comes with its own costs. A permanent member's abstention invariably reflects that it failed to achieve its objectives. It also signals timidity.
Britain and France avoid vetoes for fear that if they are seen to be too hard-edged, they will be harried off of the Security Council and replaced by one European Union seat. Russia and China are motivated by other pressures. Russia is cautious because its influence is waning. China's influence is increasing, but it feels the need to tread lightly.
This is all the more reason why the U.S. can't afford to abdicate its international leadership role. For the U.S., abstentions have larger costs than for any other permanent member.
When the U.S. abstains, it cedes the field to others on the Security Council. And our global interests make losing the initiative unacceptably risky, especially on critical issues such as the Middle East.
Ms. Rice's abstention last Thursday, for example, neither mitigated the council's pressure on Israel, nor increased the likelihood of a cease-fire. As a display of weakness, it simply invites a diplomatic feeding frenzy. That will almost certainly happen now in regards to Gaza, where Resolution 1860 is having no effect.
Finally, abstaining encourages careless decision-making in Washington, especially for an administration seeking to avoid hard foreign-policy choices in order to focus on domestic issues. In short, abstaining passes the buck to those who do not have the U.S.'s interests at heart, while allowing those in Washington to feel like they are actively managing our interests.
No doubt President-elect Barack Obama, who believes in multilateralism and who voted "present" numerous times in the Illinois legislature, will find U.N. abstentions attractive, even though abstaining will neither help him avoid hard choices nor advance U.S. interests.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration's failure of leadership on Resolution 1860 has set the precedent. And so on this issue, as on so many others, the new president will, sadly, simply copy his predecessor.
John R. Bolton is a senior fellow at AEI.