U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice and Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin have exchanged a series of highly personalized attacks against one another in the past 24 hours, signaling a sharp deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations at the United Nations over the response to the Arab Spring.
But the exchange reached a new level today when Rice's spokesman, Mark Kornblau, while watching Churkin insult his boss, Tweeted an edited picture of Churkin inside the face of the "Grinch Who Stole Christmas." The U.S. delegation had previously shared the photo with the Security Council, including Churkin, last year when the Russian envoy resisted Rice's efforts to convene a Security Council meeting with the world's youth. He apparently laughed then. Not clear if he thought it was funny this time around.
The latest diplomatic row has sharpened since the Russian envoy has begun pressing for a U.N.-backed investigation into allegations that NATO killed civilians during its air campaign against forces loyal to Muammar al-Qaddafi.
It comes as Russia has frustrated U.S. and European efforts to use the Security Council to ratchet up political pressure, through the threat of sanctions, on Syria to compel President Bashar al-Assad to halt a violent crackdown on protesters.
Rice suggested that the real intent of the Russian initiative was to divert attention from Syria's conduct. "Oh, the bombast and bogus claims," Rice said on Wednesday, after listening to Churkin speak outside the council. "Welcome to December. Is everybody sufficiently distracted from Syria now and the killing that is happening before our very eyes?"
Regarding Libya, Rice added: "Now, obviously, the United States and NATO partners regret any loss of civilian lives, but we also know that these are being already investigated, including by the Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry...we welcome that. We note that neither the Libyan government nor the majority of members of the Security Council expressed any interest in any additional investigations. And, frankly, I think it's not an exaggeration to say that this is something of a cheap stunt to divert attention from other issues and to obscure the success of NATO and its partners -- and indeed the Security Council -- in protecting the people of Libya.... So...let us see this for what it is: it is duplicitous, it's redundant, it's superfluous and it's a stunt."
Churkin organized its own press briefing today to respond to Rice's comments, maintaining that the United States and its European partners are seeking to use the council to bring about regime change in Syria, and that their refusal to support a negotiated settlement of the Syrian conflict has exacerbated tensions, driving the country into an increasingly violent civil war.
But the briefing quickly got personal, as Churkin recalled what he described as a "rather unusual outburst" by Rice.
"This is not an issue that can be drowned out by expletives. You might recall the words one could hear: bombast and bogus claims, cheap stunt, duplicitous, redundant, superfluous, stunt," he said. "Oh, you know, you cannot beat a Stanford education, can you," said Churkin mocking Rice's alma mater.
"We here that the Obama administration wants to establish a dialogue with the international community in the United Nations, and in the Security Council," he added. "If that is to be the case, if this is the intention, really this Stanford dictionary of expletives must be replaced by something more Victorian, because certainly this is not the language in which we intend to discuss matters with our partners in the Security Council."
What did Rice have to say about that?
"Happy Holidays to my good friend Amb Churkin, who's clearly had a long month as Sec Council president," Rice wrote in a Tweet after the briefing. "Hope he gets some well deserved rest."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.