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Good News on Durban III?

The 10th-anniversary commemoration of the UN’s “Durban I” conference on racism will apparently face opposition from the United States. It was announced earlier this month that the conference, billed as Durban III, will be held in conjunction with the UN General Assembly session in September 2011. That would make New York City host to the third in a series of conferences that have twice served as forums for vociferous anti-Semitism and invective against Israel.

The Jerusalem Post reports today, however, that the U.S. opposes holding Durban III at the proposed time. This was to be expected, considering that the U.S. delegation walked out of the first Durban conference and pulled out of the second one in advance. But the proposal to hold Durban III in New York raises a deeper issue. Will the U.S. merely oppose holding Durban III on our soil, or will we prohibit it? We may have to do the latter if we want to prevent an episode of unseemly triumphalism in our most iconic metropolis. But doing so would not be without hazards. The choice of the UN headquarters in New York sets up the potential for a confrontation. It’s an ambiguous venue from the standpoint of sovereignty: on American soil, but in theory dedicated to multilateral UN purposes.

The traditional U.S. reluctance to exercise force majeure over the UN’s political activities has good arguments behind it. In the case of Durban III, however, American national sentiment is unlikely to tolerate the principle of host-nation quiescence regarding UN activism. The New York Daily News captured it crudely but accurately with its assessment of the Durban III planners: “Clearly, they intend to stick it in America’s eye.”

President Obama’s speech of national self-abnegation to the General Assembly in September 2009, delivered on America’s behalf, opened the door to attempts of this kind. I have no doubt that his representatives in the UN honestly oppose the current plan for Durban III, but it’s a natural consequence of the president’s rhetoric and policies. This is what the UN’s anti-liberal factions do: take miles when inches are given. In terms of posturing and rhetoric, there is no meeting them halfway.

If American diplomats can induce our fellows on the UN Human Rights Council to think better of their Durban III plan, that will be a satisfactory outcome. If the Durban III proponents force the issue, the U.S. will have some choices to make. I’m optimistic that the American people will oppose a Durban III in New York with vigor; if it ends up being held here, it will galvanize and focus domestic political opposition to the Durban process in a way neither previous conference has. Unfortunately, it will also increase public alienation from the Obama presidency. Americans are accustomed — and properly so — to presidents keeping our nation’s name out of the foreign political movements we find vile and distasteful.


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