The ouster of the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Commission has damaged not only America's international prestige but the cause of human rights around the world. In a vote that simultaneously elevated such gross violators as Sudan and Sierra Leone to the commission, the 53 member states of the U.N.'s Economic and Social Council squandered their own institutional authority and that of the U.N. as well.
To conservatives from Jesse Helms to Condoleezza Rice it was an "outrage" and a "travesty" for the United States to be excluded from the world's most important forum on human rights when Sudan will be seated on that body. To human rights advocates, it was disheartening to see the United States ejected for the first time since the drafting of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights in 1947. And according to the White House and the State Department, the vote came as a "surprise" -- because at least 14 of our usual allies unexpectedly turned against us in the secret-ballot contest. (The same day, the U.S. lost its seat on the International Narcotics Control Board, the U.N. committee that monitors international substance abuse and illegal drug trafficking, in a similar clandestine vote.)
But why was the Bush administration blindsided? And why did our allies desert us? If the president's minders are nearly as astute as their publicity suggests, they surely must have realized how quickly animosity has been mounting everywhere against perceived American arrogance. Although the loudest post-vote gloating came from such usual suspects as Iran, Iraq, China and Cuba, those traditional American adversaries were hardly alone in savoring our embarrassment. Political leaders and prominent commentators in countries nominally or actually friendly to the United States regarded the vote with ambivalence or, even worse, as a deserved comeuppance.
What this incident demonstrates, among other things, is how lamely the Bush administration is managing foreign policy -- despite the supposed competence of the president's courtiers. Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters he believed that the U.S. had locked up 43 votes, enough to ensure its reelection to the human rights body.
But that anticipated support evaporated, at least in part because the Bush White House disdains multilateral diplomacy, and consequently neglects U.N. business (including the payment of back dues). Moreover, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. is no longer a Cabinet-level position, as it was during the Clinton administration. And at the moment we don't even have a fully accredited representative at the United Nations because John Negroponte, the dubious Bush nominee, has yet to be sent up to the Senate for confirmation.
There are, of course, much deeper reasons underlying the human rights fiasco. International disillusionment with American policy has been growing for years at the U.N., among allies as well as enemies of the United States. The Clinton administration -- with its failure to support the treaty banning land mines, its insistence on the inhumane Iraqi sanctions and its defeat on ratification of the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty -- didn't leave an ideal legacy for its successor. But President Clinton's personal popularity abroad, enhanced by his own fluency in global issues, helped sustain American influence during his presidency. His aides worked hard to overcome congressional hostility to the United Nations and forge an agreement on back dues and other problems.
By contrast, George W. Bush not only lacks Clinton's personal qualities, but has made matters much worse with policies that aggravate tensions between the U.S. and its allies. Given the opportunity to cast a secret ballot, more than a dozen friendly nations chose to punish us for what Bush has done over the past 100 days to undermine environmental protection and arms control.
Some U.N. critics in Congress and the American media claim to have detected a dark conspiracy against the United States, which emerged in the human rights vote. They are urging that the U.S. withhold money it has agreed to pay the U.N. to settle its back dues, and that we somehow punish the nations that voted against us (even though we have little idea which they are). At this point, however, the angry cries for retribution are worse than futile. Any such misguided vengeance will merely make the job of American diplomats more difficult.
Instead, this vote ought to be taken by policymakers in the White House as a rather mild warning. The advancement of human rights and democracy around the world, while never a Republican priority, is certainly in our interest. So is the maintenance of alliances with other democratic nations. This latest fiasco only indicates how poorly such vital interests have been served by the people who now wield power in Washington. The extent of the damage they have done already may impress their tiny minds only after it is too late to be repaired. Let's hope they change their ways before a real crisis erupts.