Where Has Susan Rice, our UN Ambassador, Been This Past Year?

This week marks the one year anniversary of Susan Rice’s confirmation by the United States Senate to represent the American people at the United Nations. Over the past 12 months, the U.S. has faced some serious foreign policy challenges such as Iran’s nuclear ambitions, North Korea’s ongoing nuclear weapons’ tests, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, freezing terrorists’ assets world-wide and now the on-going disaster in Haiti. But while the UN struggles to find common ground on these and other important issues, Susan Rice has chosen to spend several days of the work week over the last year in Washington, DC hanging out at the White House and not engaging seriously in New York at the UN.

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Rice started off her tenure at the UN with a glamour spread in Vogue Magazine by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz showing her kicking back in an empty Security Council Chamber. It was this silly piece that first signaled to the UN reporters and diplomats that Rice was in New York to have fun and participate in the events that Upper East Side diplomats do. While Rice does commute from Washington, DC every week, she lives in the penthouse of the Waldorf Astoria when in New York. She also has the largest Washington, DC office and staff of any U.S. Ambassador to the UN in history. She regularly attends White House social functions appearing as the Disney character “Goofy” at this year’s White House Halloween Party and attended multiple Christmas Parties at The White House this holiday season.

While Rice, like all Democrat-appointed US Ambassadors to the UN, also serves in the President’s cabinet, she has nevertheless been absent at many crucial Security Council meetings in New York during some of the world body’s most turbulent times. Rice was even missing from this week’s Security Council debate and vote to add new Peacekeepers to a beleaguered UN operation in Haiti. According to several UN veteran reporters and some US Mission staff, Rice has been missing from crucial negotiations on Iran too. They say that when Rice does attend UN negotiations, she is all too willing to avoid confrontation. The Permanent Members of the Security Council – the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia and China – rely on American leadership to drive issues to a close and force votes. While the Permanent Members historically complain publicly about being forced to vote or meet on certain issues, without one country driving issues to completion the UN Members will keep talking or find ways to continue fruitless discussions. After spending 8 years inside the UN and watching the Security Council debate a plethora of issues, I can personally attest to the fact that an effective American Ambassador cannot worry about being the most popular person in the room. Forcing an end to a UN debate and calling for the Security Council to vote on an issue is never popular.

Over the last year, Rice has avoided tough negotiations and public feuds at the UN and has subsequently produced very few UN resolutions on America’s priority issues. While other foreign Ambassadors speak fondly of Rice and her ability to make nice at the UN, she has been a weak negotiator for the American people. Many UN veterans have indicated that Rice’s lack of leadership on the Iranian issue in particular has forced the French Ambassador to pick up the slack in trying to forge a new Security Council resolution to increase sanctions. The irony that the French are tougher than the Americans on the Iran issue has not been lost on career State Department officials.

During the Bush Administration, much to the dismay of many UN members, the United States delegation passed several sanctions resolutions on Iran for their continued uranium enrichment. The Russians and Chinese, in particular, complained publicly about a vote forced upon them, but in the end they voted for the UN sanctions resolution. Rice and her team have so far been unsuccessful in getting even one single sanctions resolution despite having given multiple deadlines to the Iranian Government.

Rice’s weak and sporadic attention to U.S. priority issues actually damages the UN’s credibility by sending the message that U.S. tax dollars can be spent without regard to effectiveness. Americans have always demanded that the UN reform its bloated system and it has fallen to the American Ambassador to the UN to spearhead that reform. Under Rice’s leadership, the U.S. delegation has been astonishingly quiet on UN budget and reform issues. While Peacekeeping operations continue to be expanded without challenge and the UN Budget dramatically increased, Rice and her team have drawn few lines in the sand with the UN. Not surprisingly, Rice has chosen to abandon a messy public fight with other countries looking to spend American taxpayers’ dollars. The U.S. taxpayer pays 22% of the UN’s total budget and 26% of its Peacekeeping budget – more than $1 Billion every year. While the Bush Administration had some success in starting a top to bottom review of every UN mandate and program, the Rice team has dropped the effort altogether. On November 19, 2009, the U.S. Government’s General Accounting Office issued a report questioning how some of the $330 million the U.S. gave to the UN Office for Project Services’ was spent, including a citation of $200,000 to renovate a guest house. So far, Rice and her team have done very little to follow up on this and other questionable budget issues. Demanding UN reform won’t endear you to other Ambassadors, but the American people expect it.

Rice often says that she is different than her predecessors and chooses to socialize and engage her UN colleagues quietly. But the irony is that engaging the world body, as John Bolton did, gives the American people the confidence that our Representatives at the UN are watching how the money is spent and how effective the programs are being implemented. Fighting for quality UN international peacekeeping programs only strengthens the UN and allows it to do more. Reforming the UN makes it more effective and ensuring that the UN spends our money wisely enables it and us to do more for suffering people around the world. One sure way to weaken the UN is to marginalize it, placate it and not engage it as Rice has done this past year.

Perhaps the best example of how Susan Rice views her responsibilities at the UN this year is seen in her revamp of the Bush era website for her office. While previous U.S. Ambassadors to the UN have prominently displayed the American flag on their website and proudly displayed the site in red, white and blue coloring, Rice has changed the site to UN Blue, added a large UN logo and only later added a small American flag after several reporters inquired about the dramatic change and missing American stars and stripes. Rice has gambled this past year that keeping America unengaged at the UN is the best way to be the most popular Ambassador. Unfortunately, though well-liked during her sporadic visits to the UN, Rice has so far been unable to produce any meaningful progress on the world’s most troubling issues.


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