U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is set to appoint a top former Qatari diplomat as his high representative of the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations, reinforcing the oil sheikdom's standing as a rising diplomatic powerhouse.
Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, a former Qatari envoy to the United Nations who served as U.N. General Assembly president last year, will replace Jorge Sampaio, a former Portuguese president who currently heads the organization.
The decision places a trusted Western ally at the head of an organization that aims to bridge the cultural gap between the West and the Islamic world.
The New York-based agency was established at the initiative of former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who proposed the creation of a high-level panel of eminent leaders to promote cooperation in the Christian and Muslim world. The Spanish proposal came several months after more than 192 people were killed in a terrorist attack in Madrid in March 2004. Turkey later signed on as a co-sponsor of the initiative.
The high-level group includes the Qatari emir's influential second wife, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned, the former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and U.S. Rabbi Arthur Schneier.
Qatar is an intriguing pick.
Qatar's emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and Sheika Mozah have sought to transform the emirate into the intellectual and cultural capital of the Middle East, sponsoring outposts for major Western universities, including Cornell and Georgetown, and think tanks like Brookings Doha Center.
Earlier this month, Qatar's satellite television station, Al Jazeera, purchased the Current TV cable channel, granting the government-funded news organization access to tens of millions of American households. So, in a sense, Qatar has already been at the forefront of bridging the cultural gap between the Islamic world and the West.
But the role of the Sunni monarchy within the Islamic world has been controversial, particularly in the Middle East, where Doha has been a protagonist in the emerging schism between the region's Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
The Gulf sheikdom has been a highly controversial actor in the region since the Arab Spring, funneling cash and weapons to revolutionaries seeking the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi and insurgents in Syria, where Qatar backs the downfall of Bashar al-Assad and the ruling Alawite minority, which has close ties to Iran's Shiite government. During his tenure as General Assembly president, Nasser organized several sessions to condemn Syria's crackdown on protesters in Syria.
Qatar has contributed large sums of money to Sunni Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which the United States government considers a terrorist organization.
Despite its regional ambitions, Qatar has sought to cultivate a reputation as an intermediary between the Middle East and the West. It has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into peace efforts from Darfur to Lebanon, and it supports American military aims.
The United States view the Qatari monarchy, which hosts the largest U.S. military air base in the region, as a key ally in its military campaign in recent years in Afghanistan and Iraq. While Washington has privately expressed unease about Qatar's relations with Iran (with which it shares an enormous natural gas field), it believes that Qatar shares Washington's desire to contain Iran's influence in the region.
"I see this appointment playing perfectly into the way the Qataris try to market themselves diplomatically; they can use this as part of their global soft power projection and generate international good will," said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. "With all due respect to the worthiness of this [Alliance of Civilizations] project -- and I think it is worthy," he added. "This is not real diplomacy; this is public relations."
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Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and reportedly the favorite to succeed Hillary Clinton, asked to have her name withdrawn for consideration as the America's new secretary of state, the culmination of months of political attacks by Republican lawmakers, and intense scrutiny of her wealth, blunt diplomatic style, and relationship with African leaders.
Rice, 48, appeared destined this fall to serve as America's next top diplomat as President Barack Obama's second-term leader of Foggy Bottom. But her prospects plummeted after a trio of Republican senators -- John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) -- mounted a sustained attack on Rice.
They suggested that Rice may have willfully misled the public in a series of Sunday morning talk show interviews in which she characterized the September 11 attack on Benghazi, which led to the death of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. nationals, as likely a spontaneous reaction to the broadcast of an anti-Islamic web video.
The account later proved untrue, and evidence soon emerged pointing to a more targeted strike on the U.S. consulate by Libyan Islamists linked to al Qaeda. But the GOP charges against her never stuck, because Rice's account was largely consistent with internal talking notes she had received from the Central Intelligence Agency and because she had left open the possibility that al Qaeda or one of its affiliates may have been involved in the attacks.
In November, Obama rallied to her defense, telling reporters at a White House press conference that Rice had "done exemplary work" at the United Nations. "If Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me," Obama said with gusto. "For them to go after the U.N. ambassador who had nothing to do with Benghazi...to besmirch her reputation is outrageous."
But McCain never relented as opposition in the Republican camp widened, drawing in Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), which made it clear that Rice was headed for a contentious Senate nomination process. Rice, meanwhile, faced a flood of more critical coverage of her tenure as a young U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the 1990s, and her role in shielding a close African ally, Paul Kagame, from scrutiny at the U.N. for his government's alleged role in backing a brutal mutiny in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo.
"I am highly honored to be considered by you for appointment as Secretary of State," Rice wrote in a letter to the president. "I am fully confident that I could serve our country ably and effectively in that role. However, if nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly -- to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities. That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country."
Rice said in the letter that she looks forward to continuing to serve the president and the country as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., though rumor has it that she might be going back to the White House or National Security Council.
President Obama issued a statement from the White House praising Rice as "an extraordinary capable, patriotic and passionate public servant" who has played an "indispensable role in advancing American interests" at the United Nations.
"While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks," said the statement, "her decision demonstrates the strength of her character, and an admiral commitment to rise above the politics of the moment to put our national interests first."
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Who says the United States doesn't wield influence in the world?
With all the clamor about the limits of American power in shaping a tougher response in the Security Council to Syria's excesses, a couple of recent cases demonstrates that when the U.S. acts others follow suit, just not always the countries you would expect.
On Friday morning, July 27, the United States announced that it needed more time to consider the thorny details of the landmark arms trade treaty. The request, made on the last day of a nearly month-long session, effectively brought the process to a crushing halt. It also made it clear that the United States had no intention of negotiation the pact until next year, after the U.S. presidential election.
The action was criticized by America's allies and denounced by arms control activists as a monumental abdication of U.S. leadership on the world stage, one that threatened the fate of the first international treaty regulating the international sale of conventional weapons.
"This was stunning cowardice by the Obama administration, which at the last minute did an about-face and scuttled progress toward a global arms treaty, just as it reached the finish line," said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International and formerly the Obama administration's deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations.
But for countries that were never enthusiastic about supporting a treaty that could potentially constrain their military exports, the U.S. move was a rallying cry. Before the day was out, Russia, China, India, and Indonesia had lined up squarely behind the United States.
But this isn't the kind of leadership the State Department likes to brag about.
After the conference ended without agreement, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland issued a statement that glossed over the role it played in the delay, saying simply that "more time is a reasonable request for such a complex and critical issue."
She said the United States still favored a U.N. arms treaty, but that negotiations would have to wait till next year, placing the politically charged issued off the table in the run up to the election.
"The illicit trafficking of conventional arms is an important national security concern for the United States.... The current text reflects considerable positive progress, but it needs further review and refinement," Nuland said in a statement. "With that in mind, we will continue to work towards an Arms Trade Treaty that will contribute to international security, protect the sovereign right of states to conduct legitimate arms trade, and meet the objectives and concerns that we have been articulating, including not infringing on the constitutional rights of our citizens to bear arms."
On another front, the United States clearly demonstrated the enduring power of America's example on the world stage.
For years, critics have accused the State Department of shielding the predominantly ethnic Tutsi Rwandan government from allegations that it had committed large-scale massacres of ethnic Hutus in Rwanda and eastern Congo following the 1994 genocide. The killings, according to human rights advocates and U.N. investigators, were in retaliation for the role of the Hutu-led government in the slaughter of more than 800,000 people.
In her book, Madame Prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte said that State Department's ambassador at large for war crimes, Pierre Prosper, tried to blackmail her into dropping an investigation by the International Criminal Tribunal into alleged crimes by Paul Kagame's forces.
Del Ponte claimed that Prosper, who is now advising Mitt Romney, pressed her to sign a memorandum of understanding allowing the Rwandan government to prosecute alleged war crimes against its own forces. When she refused, the United States launched a successful campaign to assign a new prosecutor to oversee the Rwandan war crimes.
The State Department, which has long shielded the Rwandan government from war crimes charges, announced that it was withdrawing $200,000 in funding for Rwanda, citing claims in a U.N. report that Rwandan has organized, armed, and funded a military rebellion in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Within days, Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany announced that they were planning, or at least considering, suspending funding for Rwanda's budget, citing its alleged support for the mutineers. Rwanda responded angrily, characterizing the aid cut as another example of Western paternalism. "This child-to-parent relationship has to end ... there has to be a minimum respect," Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo told business leaders in Kenya, according to a Reuters report. "As long as countries wave check books over our heads, we can never be equal."
For now, that reality is perhaps a small sign that the era of American world dominance has not entirely faded.
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U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki moon has rejected a plea by Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangarai not to recognize President Robert Mugabe's hand-picked U.N. envoy. In a statement, Ban's spokesman said that the question was an internal matter for the Zimbabwean government to sort out.
Earlier this week, Tsvangarai appealed to the United Nations, the European Union, and other governments, to reject a group of six envoys selected by Mugabe in recent months. A long-time opposition figure, Tsvangarai formed a unity government with his rival Mugabe in February 2009, after the latter lost elections but refused to step down. Mugabe has violated the terms of the power-sharing pact, Tsvangirai claims; the so-called Global Political Agreement governing their joint-rule requires both the president's and prime minister's approvals for foreign envoys and other key appointments.
From almost the moment the unity government was formed, Tsvangirai and Mugabe have been locked in a bitter dispute over the power to appoint senior officials at home and abroad. Tsvangarai has also challenged the legitimacy of Mugabe's appointments for several other top jobs, including the attorney general, the central bank governor.
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Last week, Arizona's Republican governor Janice Brewer accused the Obama administration of subjecting U.S. immigration law to U.N. review, saying it was an example of "internationalism run amok and unconstitutional."
But Obama is hardly the first American president to consult the United Nations. In fact, Republican administrations have been subjecting policies on immigration, detention treatment, and a host of other human rights issues to some form of scrutiny by the U.N. and other international bodies for years.
Brewer was protesting the Obama administration's inclusion of a provision highlighting the Department of Justice's efforts to challenge a controversial Arizona immigration law, SB 1070, which expands police powers to detain anyone suspected of being an illegal alien.
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.