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Obama's diplomacy test

A U.N. conference on racism is putting a spotlight on the president's promise to engage even with unfriendly countries. So far, the administration's actions haven't been encouraging.

March 09, 2009

President Obama promised a new kind of foreign policy, in which the United States would engage in active diplomacy even with countries considered our opponents. In playground terms, Obama said he wanted to play ball with the world, whereas President Bush had taken his ball away from multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, gone home and dared anybody else to play without him.

An early test of Obama's commitment to multilateralism is fast approaching, and so far he's looking like a bigger spoilsport than his predecessor.

On April 20, the U.N. will conduct a follow-up to its first international conference on racism. That meeting, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, is often cited by conservatives as Exhibit A in the case against multilateralism. A conference that was supposed to address serious issues of racial discrimination was overshadowed by criticism of Israel by Muslim nations, prompting the U.S. and Israeli delegations to walk out.

The latest conference, commonly known as Durban II although it will be held in Geneva, is shaping up to be even more contentious. The Obama administration made a show of participating by sending negotiators to discuss the wording of the draft statement, which will be approved at the event by the nations that attend. Sadly, it was only a show; the State Department announced late last month that it had given up. Unless the draft is substantially changed before April 20, the U.S. won't go to Geneva. That makes Obama more intransigent than Bush, who at least sent a delegation, even if it did walk out.

To be sure, the draft document reportedly contains provisions that no freedom- or peace-loving nation could possibly support. Not only does it make outrageous allegations about Israeli "apartheid," but it seeks to equate "defamation of religions" with human rights abuses. This is a reprehensible attempt by Muslim nations to restrict speech in the free world by condemning depictions of Muhammad or any other expression they find offensive.

The question isn't whether the Obama administration should attempt to expunge such passages, but whether it would be more successful in doing so by continuing to attend the preparatory sessions and going to the conference, or by boycotting it. Some argue that the latter is best because it sends a signal that the U.S. finds the event, and the U.N. Human Rights Council sponsoring it, to be illegitimate. But that's kind of like protesting an election by refusing to vote: Your side might lose as a result. The final document will be approved by consensus, meaning that the U.S. could make a big difference simply by showing up and sticking to its principles.

There is every possibility the conference will turn into an ugly show trial of Israel rather than a colloquium on racism, and if that happens, U.S. diplomats will be glad they stayed home. Yet we wish the Obama administration had fought a little harder and spent more than a week in negotiations. A rerun of the Bush foreign policy philosophy is hardly change we can believe in.

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