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Susan Rice’s Absence Did Not Go Unnoticed

On Tuesday, the United States reaffirmed its opposition to Palestinian plans to sidestep negotiations with Israel and declare a state this fall at the United Nations. But Ambassador Susan Rice, Washington’s top representative at the UN, was apparently nowhere to be found. At the last open meeting of the UN Security Council prior to the Palestinians’ expected unilateral declaration of independence (UDI), Rice’s deputy, U.S. Deputy Permanent Representative Rosemary DiCarlo, pronounced that “symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September will not create an independent Palestinian state. The United States will not support unilateral campaigns at the United Nations in September or any other time.”

While the statement was reassuring, Rice’s absence is troubling.

She has been instrumental in President Obama’s administration’s most important multilateral achievements. She herded the international community with great tenacity on Iran sanctions last year and war with Libya this year. In the case of both multilateral efforts, it was clear Obama could not have moved those mountains without his trusted adviser.

Perhaps Rice’s demanding schedule is getting the better of her. While other permanent UN representatives are based in New York and are dedicated full-time to the international debate over the General Assembly resolutions looming between now and September, Rice splits her time between New York and Washington. Rice, of course, enjoys a cabinet level position, and is often at the ear of the president.

By all accounts, the Palestinians are closing in on the numbers they need (if they haven’t already).  If U.S. policy is to stymie a vote in the General Assembly, where a two-thirds majority can pass a measure that would enable Palestinians to prosecute Israel in international legal fora, why wasn’t Rice making more multilateral magic?

Rather than launching a full court press to divert the Palestinian unilateral declaration, Rice delegated the job to her deputy. And while DiCarlo enjoys the rank of ambassador, the other Security Council members got the message. The president did not send his close adviser.

To make matters worse, a spokesman from the U.S. mission reluctantly admitted via email that Tuesday’s open debate was the last this summer on Middle East issues —in other words, the last opportunity for the U.S. to publicly make its case.

Just what was America’s closing arguments at the UN?  The statement, (here) reveals the U.S. apparently does not view the Palestinian unilateral declaration as worthy of long refutation. Rather, the statement devotes just a few sentences at the top, explaining why unilateralism is ill-advised. By contrast, some three-quarters of the statement laid out the well-known contours of the president’s policies in the Middle East, from settlements and Syria to Lebanon and Gaza.

Thus, while the Obama administration’s public opposition to Palestinian unilateralism is both commendable and commonsensical, the execution of its policy has been a failure. The question now is whether the White House failed to execute a successful policy, or succeeded in executing a failed one.