I chuckled softly to myself last week when I followed the news coverage of how angrily the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, condemned the Russian and Chinese vetoes of a Security Council resolution that sought to end the escalating conflict in Syria. The media emphasized that Rice was really, really angry, as only a righteous American ambassador can be when condemning moves by other great powers to use their veto to stop collective action by the council in the service of applying the rule of law.
Rice said that she was “disgusted” by the double veto, and added that, “A couple of members of this council remain steadfast in their willingness to sell out the Syrian people and shield a craven tyrant.”
She was correct, of course, and we should all share her anger at the double veto, because the ongoing killings by all sides in Syria are unacceptable by any standards. We should take her position seriously because displays of public anger by ambassadors are noteworthy in themselves, and this is especially true for ambassadors of powerful countries like the United States that send their army around the world at will, usually at great cost to all involved.
Yet I chuckle nevertheless, because am not sure whether we should assess Ms. Rice’s outburst at the level of Russian and Chinese policy, conditions in Syria, the work of the U.N. Security Council, or the foreign policy consistency or duplicity of the United States.
Each of these domains is significant. Yet try as I may, I cannot take Rice and the U.S. seriously here, because the U.S. sets the world’s gold standard on using vetoes in the Security Council to shield criminal activity, by Israel in particular. I am not sure if Rice and the U.S. government think the world is stupid or merely perpetually servile to American swagger.
The problem she has in being taken seriously is that the U.S. has used its veto power in the council 42 times since 1972 to kill resolutions seeking to affirm international law and stop assorted Israeli actions in the occupied Palestinian territories. Virtually every major Israeli contravention of international law, U.N. resolutions and basic human decency has been shielded at one time or another by the U.S. through the use of the veto power – including land expropriations, settlements expansion, murder and assassinations, respecting holy sites, attacking civilians in neighboring countries, applying the Fourth Geneva Convention to occupied lands and populations, intercepting civilian aircraft, killing U.N. employees, and more.
The latest American veto came a year ago on Feb. 18, 2011, when Washington blocked the Security Council’s attempt to declare all Israeli settlements activity since 1967 as illegal, and to call for a halt in such construction. In most cases, the U.S. alone vetoed resolutions that affirmed international law and were critical of Israel. Most recently in September-October 2011 Washington adopted a new tactic, the pre-emptive veto. It made it publicly clear beforehand that it would veto a resolution at the Security Council recognizing an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders (regardless of the fact that the U.S. voted for a Palestinian state in 1947).
So what should we make of the angry and disgusted Susan Rice who does not take kindly to other big powers selling out defenseless citizens in third countries under military assault? Well, nothing, really. We can pretty much ignore her and her government’s public display of anger, because they lack that essential combination of consistency, sincerity and credibility that are so vital for those who wish to be taken seriously. If Rice is so disgusted by this veto episode, can she imagine how it feels to be at the receiving end of such actions, by her government 42 times over the past four decades?
I realize I am not saying anything new here; only pointing out one of many reasons why powers such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and others steadily find themselves with less influence around the world, regardless of their military power. The United States deserves particular criticism, however, because of the chronic nature and large scale of its diplomatic duplicity, and for priding itself on being a shining example of the rule of law; and for sending its military around the world to make this clear.
Susan Rice’s anger and disgust with the Russian-Chinese veto were largely hollow and meaningless, because in reality they reflected more U.S. hubris and pride than any credible diplomacy.
This is doubly tragic because at once it neutralizes the collective power of the Security Council to be a force for peace, security and stability, and it also reduces the capacity of the U.S. to do good and be taken seriously around the world. This leaves Washington in its current dilemma of finding that across the world many of its policies, and all of its anger, elicit mainly a soft and sad chuckle.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. A listing of U.N. resolutions on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and votes, is at www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/UN/usvetoes.html.