At last week’s grand gathering of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, one of the Obama administration’s worst fumbles was largely unreported by the U.S. media. It came during Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Thursday speech to the assembly.
In the face of Iran’s advancing nuclear program and repeated threats to annihilate Israel, Netanyahu was presenting an urgent case for drawing a red line against Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons. “The relevant question,” he said, “is not when Iran will get the bomb. The relevant question is at what stage can we no longer stop Iran from getting the bomb.”
The prime minister presented this essential declaration to a U.N. chamber dominated by member states whose governments are for the most part hostile to Israel. More than half of them belong to the Non-Aligned Movement, now chaired by Iran. Meanwhile, the most important diplomat to whom Netanyahu should be able to look for support, the U.S.’s ambassador to the U.N., was not there.
Amid the theater of U.N. summit speeches, where symbolism matters, Ambassador Susan Rice should have been right there in the chamber — not only to listen to America’s embattled ally, but to be witnessed by the world, and especially by other delegations to the U.N., heeding every word and applauding at the end. If Rice absolutely could not be present, Secretary of State Clinton, also in New York for meetings, should have been there.
Instead, seated in Rice’s place at the head of the U.S. delegation was an under-secretary of state, Wendy Sherman. Sherman is a veteran of the Clinton administration’s unsuccessful nonproliferation dalliance with North Korea, and more recently took part in the Obama administration’s failed talks with Iran.
Where was Rice? There’s been astoundingly little coverage of her ill-timed vanishing act, apart from the Israeli press and Fox News, on which U.N. commentator Anne Bayefsky raised the question and talk-show anchor Greta Van Susteren gave it brief mention.
In response to my own queries about Rice’s absence, a spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the U.N. said that Rice had been at the General Assembly earlier in the day, but left before Netanyahu spoke. This was due to a cascading set of scheduling conflicts in which the top priority was apparently Clinton’s commitment to speak elsewhere at an event for an initiative called “Connecting the Americas 2022.” That meant Clinton could not attend a ministerial-level lunch meeting of the five permanent members (P5) of the Security Council, so Rice had to fill in at the P5 lunch.
According to the U.S. mission, Rice might have been able to cram in Netanyahu’s speech before the P5 lunch, had the GA speakers stuck to their allotted time slots. But as the speeches preceding Netanyahu’s ran late, Rice “notified” the Israelis that she had to leave, and they apparently “understood.”
But this explanation just doesn’t wash. Whether the Israelis “understood” or not, Rice should done whatever it took to be there for Netanyahu’s speech, even if that meant a late solo lunch at a hot-dog stand. Even if either Clinton or Rice had to attend the P5 lunch, surely State could have convinced the Connecting Americas audience to “understand” that however important it is to connect the Americas by 2022, there’s a life-and-death nuclear crisis looming in the Middle East on a much more urgent schedule.
Further, anyone familiar with the U.N. surely knows that General Assembly speeches almost always run long, and thus it’s simply not believable that Rice planned to be there for Netanyahu’s speech and to attend the P5 lunch. When Rice was scheduled to take Clinton’s place at the luncheon, it was pretty much a done deal that they were placing a higher priority on her lunch appetizer than on Netanyahu’s speech. (To infer anything else would be to vastly underrate the scheduling talents of Susan Rice. Just a fortnight earlier, she had managed to appear on no fewer than five separate Sunday shows, spreading the absurd and now discredited message that the Benghazi attack was “spontaneous.”)
Worse, in trying to defend Rice’s absence, the U.S. mission stressed that in leaving, she also missed the Palestinian president’s speech, as if the discourtesies were somehow equivalent. Israel is a close U.S. ally under direct, explicit, and increasingly urgent threat of annihilation by a terror-based Iranian regime seeking nuclear weapons. The Palestinian Authority is none of these.
Nor is it easy to discern why, at a time of worsening crisis over the Iranian nuclear program, it was urgent for Rice to abandon the Israeli prime minister in order to attend a lunch where two of the attendees, Russia and China, have been running interference for Iran for years. If, during last Thursday’s lunch, unusual progress was achieved on this front, or indeed on any front, there’s been no visible sign of it.
Moreover, the absence of Clinton and Rice was not the worst part of America’s appalling diplomatic dereliction during last week’s U.N. meetings. Their priorities were of a piece with administration practice. President Obama himself, who has placed the U.N. at the center of his foreign policy, spent less than 24 hours in New York for this year’s conclave, with part of that time devoted to appearing as, in his own words, “eye candy” on The View.
Apart from hosting a reception for visiting heads of state, Obama found time for only one official U.N. event, his own speech. When he worked his way around to Iran, he did promise that the U.S. “will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” But then he proclaimed his preference for yet more “time and space” for diplomacy, with only the vague reminder — unlikely to wow the ayatollahs or anyone else — that “time is not unlimited.”
In a departure from custom, including his own, Obama not only skipped the U.N. secretary general’s annual summit lunch, but made no time for bilateral meetings with any foreign leaders, including Netanyahu. When Obama himself finally connected with Netanyahu, on Friday, it was for a 20-minute phone call.
One might ask why the U.S. bothers with hosting the General Assembly, an annual festival of tyrants and traffic gridlock, in the first place. But if U.S. support for Israel at this shindig consists of being out to lunch at crucial moments and phoning in a day later, it’s time to cut the losses. Do it all over video conference.
— Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.