Why Obama Had To Boycott UN Racism Conference

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[Global: Analysis Of Durban II]

In 1997, the General Assembly decided, in resolution 52/111, to hold the first World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa in 2001.

Its mission was to provide a unique opportunity to create a new world vision for the fight against racism in the twenty-first century.

On September 3, 2001 the United States withdrew its delegation from the conference. Then US Secretary of State Colin Powell read the following statement:

"Today I have instructed our representatives at the World Conference Against Racism to return home. I have taken this decision with regret, because of the importance of the international fight against racism and the contribution that the Conference could have made to it. But, following discussions today by our team in Durban and others who are working for a successful conference, I am convinced that will not be possible. I know that you do not combat racism by conferences that produce declarations containing hateful language, some of which is a throwback to the days of ‘Zionism equals racism;’ or supports the idea that we have made too much of the Holocaust; or suggests that apartheid exists in Israel; or that singles out only one country in the world--Israel--for censure and abuse."

Powell’s announcement came after weeks of negotiations by U.S. officials to remove language from conference documents that equated Zionism -- the movement that promotes a Jewish state in Israel -- with racism and singles out Israel as a "racist" occupying power. Some of the language was removed, but the Bush administration was not satisfied.

We now fast forward to the recently concluded Durban Review conference in Geneva, Switzerland. On April 18, 2009, according to the U.S. State Department, the Obama Administration decided to boycott the 2009 U.N. conference on racism over a document that "singles out" Israel in its criticism and conflicts with the nation's "commitment to unfettered free speech".

State Department officials said the document contained language that reaffirms the Durban Declaration and Program of Actions from the 2001 conference in Durban, South Africa, which the United States said it wouldn’t support. The 2001 document "prejudges key issues that can only be resolved in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians," the statement said.

The Obama Administration has come under fire for its decision to boycott the conference. Some have equated President Obama’s decision with President Bush’s decision in 2001. Even though the decisions were the same, I believe there are some subtle differences that need to be examined.

First, let’s be very clear. The current practices of the Zionist government in Israel against the people of Palestine are evil, genocidal, and racist. The Israeli government has adopted an official policy of racial-ethnic apartheid involving political, legal, and economic discrimination against the Arab Israeli citizens of Israel -- over 20% of Israel's population -- and against the Arab Palestinians in occupied Palestine.

This is not just my opinion. According to the BBC, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has accused Israel of practicing apartheid in its policies towards the Palestinians. He said, "it reminded me so much of what happened to us Black people in South Africa."

Former South African President Nelson Mandela has said, "Israel has a worst apartheid system than South Africa ever did." Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has accused Israel of creating an apartheid system in the West Bank and Gaza. "Israel’s continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land."

The Bush Administration used the "Zionism equals racism" argument as an excuse not to do what it did not want to do any way. According to Clarence Lusane, Ph.D. in his book "Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice: Foreign Policy, Race, and the New American Century," "…it was clear early on that the Bush administration was looking for an escape hatch, not only because it did not want to address the issue of racism, but also more broadly the conference conflicted with the administration’s goal of marginalizing the United Nations". According to Lusane, Bush Administration officials such as UN Ambassador John Bolton felt that the UN was anti-US and perhaps not needed at all.

For them to attend the conference would only legitimize an organization that they were trying to co-opt.

For as much as many would have liked to have seen President Obama attend the conference, I've asked myself why he chose not to. According to the AP, "The decision follows weeks of furious internal debate and will likely please Israel and Jewish groups that lobbied against U.S. participation…"

I don’t believe that the Obama Administration has a problem dealing with racism or like his predecessor is trying to marginalize the UN. President Obama finds himself
dealing with a very different political reality.

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll shows that 48 percent of Americans believe the United States is headed in the right direction, up from 40 percent in February and forty-four percent say the nation is on the wrong track.

Even though this is the first time since January 2004 that an AP survey found more "right direction" than "wrong direction" respondents, President Obama is constantly under attack. Many conservatives attack him not so much on ideas as ideology while others attack him based upon race.

Among the qualities demonstrated by President Obama so far in his term, is that he is very task oriented, stays on track, and picks his battles wisely. His primary issues right now are the economy, health care, and the war (not necessarily in that order). On these issues he's been very adept at staying on track and staying on message.

If he were to go against the interests of the very powerful "Israel and Jewish groups that lobbied against U.S. participation" on the issue of the UN Racism Conference, that would create a firestorm the likes of which he would not be able to control.

This would take him off task and off message. With the other domestic issues on his plate I don't think he is interested in picking that fight right now. Even though it's the right thing to do, the friends he would make in doing so would not be as powerful as the enemies he would create.

In this analysis one can not underestimate the role that the Israeli lobby plays in the foreign policy decision making process. Archbishop Tutu has acknowledged the political power of Jewish groups in the United States, saying: "People are scared in this country; to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful - very powerful. Well, so what?"

In their book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, Professor’s John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt write that the lobby has sought to influence US policy to insure that among other things, the US backs, "Israel in its long struggle with the Palestinians … Most pro-Israel groups-also want the United States to help Israel remain the dominant military power in the Middle East."

In making the decision about attending the UN conference, the Obama administration had to balance right and wrong against practical politics. Zionism in its current political application is racist and the US should participate in the UN conference to address this and many other issues effecting world peace and equality.

In terms of practical politics, at this stage in the game, President Obama can ill afford to loose the media, banking interests and other key policy areas where the Israeli lobby and its supporters are quite powerful.

According to the latest AP poll, while there is evidence that people feel more optimistic about the economy, 65 percent said it's difficult for them and their families to get ahead. More than one-third of Americans know of a family member who recently lost a job. More than 90 percent of Americans consider the economy an important issue, the highest ever in AP polling. Nearly 80 percent believe that the rising federal debt will hurt future generations, and Obama is getting mixed reviews at best for his handling of the issue. His support is strong but tenuous at best.

If President Obama succeeds in addressing the economy, health care, and the war, he will be poised for another term. If he fails in these areas he’s done. Picking a fight with Zionists at this stage in the process would surely be his death knell.

Attending the conference would have been the right thing to do; politically, it would have been the wrong time to do it.

Dr. Wilmer Leon is the Producer/Host of the nationally broadcast call-in talk radio program "On With Leon," Producer/Host of the television program "Inside The Issues With Wilmer Leon," a regular guest on CNN’s Lou Dobb’s Tonight, and a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

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