By Stephen Zunes
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice’s announcement that she would withdraw her name from consideration to be the next secretary of state is a mixed blessing.
On the one hand, it marks yet another example of the Obama administration’s failure to defend its appointees from concerted and misleading Republican attacks. As with National Intelligence Council chair-designate Chas Freeman, special environmental advisor Van Jones, and Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod, the fact that the charges against Rice—which mostly involved her initial comments regarding the September attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi—were groundless did not stop the Republicans from succeeding.
On the other hand, Rice’s lack of support for international humanitarian law and her willingness to state demonstrable falsehoods to defend actions by the United States and its allies that violate international norms would have made her a poor choice for secretary of state. It is all too telling that the mainstream media was so willing to focus on spurious criticisms from the right while ignoring legitimate criticisms from the left.
One example of Rice’s disconnect from reality came up in the lead-up to the war in Iraq 10 years ago, as independent arms control analysts, scholars, investigative journalists, and anti-war activists were challenging the Bush administration’s lies about the supposed “Iraqi threat.” In an apparent effort to discredit these efforts by those who opposed the rush to war, Rice rushed to the administration’s defense. Even though Iraq had disarmed itself of its chemical and biological weapons and eliminated its nuclear program at least eight years earlier, Rice declared, “It’s clear that Iraq poses a major threat.” And, despite the success of the UN’s disarmament program, she insisted that Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction need to be dealt with forcefully, and that’s the path we’re on.”
In February 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell testified before the United Nations that Iraq had reconstituted its biological and chemical weapons arsenal, as well as its nuclear weapons program—and had somehow hidden all this from the hundreds of UN inspectors then in Iraq who were engaged in unfettered inspections. None of this was true, and Powell’s transparently false claims were immediately challenged by UN officials, arms control specialists, and much of the press and political leadership in Europe and elsewhere. (See my article written in response to his testimony: Mr. Powell, You’re No Adlai Stevenson.)
Rice, however, insisted that Powell had “proved that Iraq has these weapons and is hiding them, and I don’t think many informed people doubted that.” In light of such widespread and public skepticism from knowledgeable sources, Rice’s dismissal of all the well-founded criticism was positively Orwellian: those who blindly accepted Powell’s transparently false claims were “well-informed,” while the UN officials, arms control specialists, and others knowledgeable of the reality of the situation were presumably otherwise.
Her openness to another U.S. war in the Middle East became apparent when she announced in September that “there is no daylight” between the United States and the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which has been pushing for a unilateral attack on Iran, regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
Rice has also not been averse to supporting autocratic regimes in Africa, recently suppressing a UN report criticizing the government of Rwanda, a U.S. ally, for supporting the M-23 rebels in eastern Congo. The rebels, led by a notorious warlord wanted by the International Criminal Court, have wreaked havoc in the troubled province of North Kivu. Rice dismissed the report, saying, “It’s eastern Congo. If it were not the M23 killing people it would be some other armed groups.”
Similarly, this past September Rice delivered a eulogy for the late Meles Zenawi, the authoritarian ruler of Ethiopia, calling him “brilliant,” “uncommonly wise, able to see the big picture and the long game,” and “a true friend to me.”
Rice has also objected to UN initiatives challenging racism, successfully pushing the Obama administration to boycott a five-day conference in Geneva in 2009 that assessed international progress in fighting racism and xenophobia since the UN’s first conference in Durban, South Africa eight years earlier. The final document of the 2001 conference explicitly recognized “the right to security for all States in the [Middle East], including Israel, and call[ed] upon all States to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion.” It called as well for “a just, comprehensive and lasting peace in the region in which all peoples shall co-exist and enjoy equality, justice and internationally recognized human rights, and security.” However, because it also expressed concern regarding “the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation” and recognized their “right to self-determination,” Rice determined that it was somehow “anti-Israel” since it “prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.”
Defending Israeli colonization and repression
Indeed, Rice has developed a reputation at the United Nations as one of the world body’s most outspoken supporters of Israel’s rightist government and its settlements policy. Former Congressman Robert Wexler, who now heads a right-leaning pro-Israel advocacy group in Washington, wrote in an op-ed for Politico that “Israel has no greater champion in the current administration than Susan Rice.” Failing to distinguish between anti-Israel ideologues and legitimate criticism of the right-wing government’s violations of international law, Rice has dismissed criticism at the UN of Israeli policies as nothing more than “anti-Israel crap.” She cast one of only nine negative votes in the 193-member UN General Assembly to upgrade Palestine’s status to a non-member state. In Rice’s view, while Israeli statehood and membership in the United Nations is a given, Palestinian statehood and UN recognition should only be on terms agreed to by Israel’s hardline government.
Indeed, Rice has made clear her contempt for international law in a series of statements regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most of the outstanding issues between Israel and Palestine—such as settlements and the status of East Jerusalem—are issues of international law, many of which have been previously addressed by the UN Security Council and other United Nations bodies. For example, Israeli colonization of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem has continued despite these settlements constituting a clear violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, a landmark advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, and four previous UN Security Council resolutions that passed without objection from previous administrations.
However, in justifying her veto of an otherwise unanimous resolution in 2011 reiterating the illegality of Israeli colonization of the occupied West Bank, Rice insisted that it was “unwise for this Council to attempt to resolve the core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians.”
Ironically, the resolution about which she spoke did not “attempt to resolve” the conflict. Indeed, it explicitly called for the resumption of negotiations. What Rice objected to was the resolution’s insistence that such negotiations be based on international law, which is actually a very appropriate role for the UN Security Council, but one which Rice somehow found to be intolerable.
During last month’s conflict between forces of Hamas and Israel, during which three Israeli civilians and over 100 Palestinian civilians died, Rice correctly noted that there was “no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel.” However, she offered absolutely no criticism for Israel’s far more devastating bombardment of the heavily populated Gaza Strip, simply saying that “Israel, like any nation, has the right to defend itself against such vicious attacks.” She blocked an otherwise unanimous UN Security Council statement that called for a cease fire, condemned all acts of terrorism and violence directed toward civilians, and reiterated support for all states to live in peace and security within their internationally recognized boundaries.
When a UN investigation of the 2008-2009 Gaza War raised concerns about possible war crimes by both Israel and Hamas, Rice denounced it because of its criticism of the actions by the U.S.-armed Israeli Defense Forces. “Our view is that we need to be focused on the future,” she argued. The report’s findings included the recommendation that both Hamas and the Israeli government bring to justice those responsible for war crimes during the three weeks of fighting and, if they failed to do so, the report urged that the case be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for possible prosecution. Rice labeled this call to hold those accountable for war crimes as “basically unacceptable.” Though Rice had argued just a few months earlier during a UN debate on Darfur that war crimes charges should never be sacrificed for political reasons, she argued that following the report’s recommendations on Israel-Palestine could somehow interfere with the “peace process,” which has been stagnant for years.
Rice’s lack of concern for international humanitarian law has been particularly evident in her attacks against the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights, Richard Falk—an American Jew and a highly respected international legal scholar and professor emeritus from Princeton. When Falk recommended that companies profiting from Israel’s illegal settlements “should be boycotted until they bring their operations into line with international human rights and humanitarian law and standards,” Rice denounced his recommendations as “irresponsible and unacceptable.” Falk’s proposals, she argued, would “do nothing to further a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and indeed poison the environment for peace,” adding, that Falk’s “continued service in the role of a UN Special Rapporteur is deeply regrettable.” And, despite his outspoken criticisms of Palestinian terrorism and his insistence that his mandate should include violations of human rights by Palestinian governments (which led the Palestinian Authority to call for his resignation), Rice has labeled Falk “highly biased” against Israel.
In short, having Susan Rice as secretary of state would have been a major setback to the cause of human rights and international law. The question, though, is whether President Obama will nominate anyone better.
Stephen Zunes, a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist and senior analyst, is a professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco.