Feinstein: Major Issues Confront 61st UN General Assembly Session

Lee Feinstein, an expert on U.S. foreign policy and the United Nations, says the sixty-first UN General Assembly session faces “a number of huge issues, any one of which in a different year would be seen as a dominant one.” He notes Iran is “a looming crisis” for the Security Council, the problem of Darfur needs considerable work, and a new secretary-general needs to be chosen.

September 18, 2006

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Lee Feinstein, an expert on U.S. foreign policy and the United Nations, says the sixty-first UN General Assembly session faces “a number of huge issues, any one of which in a different year would be seen as a dominant one.” He notes Iran is “a looming crisis” for the Security Council, the problem of Darfur needs considerable work, and a new secretary-general needs to be chosen.

And overhanging the session, says Feinstein, CFR senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy and international law, is Iraq, because “American leverage on Iran and even on Darfur is really eroded by the failures in Iraq.”

The sixty-first UN General Assembly has just opened. If you were doing a kind of advance score card, what would you point your readers to?

The President gives his speech on Tuesday to the General Assembly. It is a speech that has a lot of domestic and international resonance. You’ve got at the United Nations a number of huge issues, any one of which in a different year would be seen as a dominant one. You’ve got what now seems to be the forgotten peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, you’ve got the leader of Iran and the leader of the United States giving speeches on the same day, and a looming crisis on Iran possibly at the Security Council, and you’ve got a Security Council resolution for Darfur, which right now cannot be implemented because the Khartoum government is rejecting it. It’s [Secretary-General] Kofi Annan’s last General Assembly. There is a campaign going on to pick a new secretary-general. You’ve got the American elections looming and it’s just a few days after the 9/11 anniversary.

And also Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president is coming.

Exactly. So yes, it’s very busy.

Who’s the front runner for the secretary-general job?

I don’t think there is a front runner now. A straw poll that was taken last week that’s private indicates the South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon is the front runner. But clearly nobody has taken command and control and it’s possible that none of the known candidates will end up being chosen.

Has the United States indicated who it would like?

The United States has not made it clear who it favors at this point. Politics with South Korea are complicated [because of disagreements over North Korea] and I think probably the United States has a soft spot for Indian UN Undersecretary-General Shashi Tharoor, who is positioning himself as a technocrat who would implement previously agreed reforms rather than somebody who would take the United Nations in new directions and that’s probably something that is of comfort to this administration. The administration would probably be pleased to have an Indian choice given the closer relationships between Washington and New Delhi.

The major issue you mentioned was Iran, and of course President Bush speaks traditionally as the second speaker at the assembly so he’ll speak in the morning. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, is due to speak in the afternoon. There’s no plan for the two to meet, and Bush last week specifically said this would not happen until Iran agrees to suspend its uranium enrichment. How does this all play into the Security Council controversy over Iran and the possibility of sanctions?

The Security Council is a poor place to engage in nonproliferation negotiations and it was a particularly poor place to deal with the Iranian issue. It gives two of Iran’s nuclear suppliers, China and Russia, the ability to set the pace of the Security Council’s actions. It distracts from what ought to be the focus of the administration’s diplomatic efforts, which should be the EU negotiations, which the United States now supports because the United States and Europe are closer on these issues. There is pressure on the transatlantic relationship with respect to Iran and giving Russia and China a greater say. And their holding a veto over what the Security Council does only intensifies that pressure.

But of course the United States brought this on itself by advocating Security Council sanctions, right?

The United States has really painted itself into a corner by putting the Security Council at the center of this diplomacy. I think that’s a mistake.

It’s odd, isn’t it, because this administration has no great love for the UN machinery.

I think it reflected divisions within the administration rather than any clear strategy. The interesting thing is that the President continues to talk tough about Iran while his State Department seems to be readying for a possible compromise.

I assume you read David Ignatius’ column last week in the Washington Post, in which he interviewed the President about Iran and the President came across as extremely soft, praising Iran, urging diplomacy, etc. Was this for the press’ benefit?

The administration does not want another foreign policy headache and it is hoping that it can get some temporary resolution of the Iran crisis while continuing to look tough. So one day the President will seem to be accommodating and in fact I would say making too many compromises, and another day he will seem to be inflexible. It depends on the day you capture him.

Now, Javier Solana, the European Union’s “foreign minister,” is still meeting on and off with Ali Larijani, the Iranian negotiator. I assume these talks will continue in New York also, right?

Right, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is supporting these negotiations. The issue is that the European Union said it would not return to the negotiating table before Iran suspended its uranium enrichment activities. Of course Solana and Larijani are talking but these are not described as official negotiations, but rather an effort to clarify each side’s positions. The administration has not only not been opposing these, it’s been encouraging them, and the proposal that is being discussed is that the Iranians would temporarily suspend enrichment after negotiations opened. I’m skeptical the Iranians will do this and I think it would be a mistake to go down this road.

In New York there has been a lot of activity, protests, and full-page ads in the newspapers about Darfur. People are urging the president to say he supports sending troops to Darfur even if Sudan opposes it. Is the United Nations really completely stymied on this?

First of all, it would be a mistake at this point to send troops into Darfur against the wishes of the Khartoum government and the United States and the United Nations have not completely gone through exhausting their options of cajoling, pressuring, and advising the government of Sudan to accept a large peacekeeping force. The administration had meetings with Sudanese officials and made strong statements, but it has not yet launched a systematic, diplomatic campaign that would bring along other countries and have real leverage with Khartoum. The United States itself has very limited leverage. First and foremost is China. China is Sudan’s largest purchaser of oil and it also has a military relationship with Sudan and therefore has a lot of leverage with Sudan. The first stop should be for the United States to work with China, which would then lean on Sudan to accept this force.

The African Union has diplomatic steps it can take. Last year it suspended membership of two countries, two governments, which overturned democratically elected leaders. The African Union can consider that kind of a step or other steps which could put some pressure on the government of Sudan. The Organization of Islamic Conferences has been worse than silent on this question and the same is true of the Arab League and these are all organizations and institutions and countries that the United States, Britain, progressive African countries, and others need to work with in order to put pressure on the government of Sudan and give it incentives to accept this force.

Let’s talk about Lebanon and with it the Palestinian-Israeli problems. The talks for forming a Palestinian unity government seems to be at best on hold and at worse in collapse over the weekend. Do you see any bright spot there?

On Lebanon the bright spot is Kofi Annan’s trip was very helpful in getting some common understanding among the parties that are necessary to make a peacekeeping operation successful. He stepped into the vacuum, which frankly should have been something the United States did, but the United States is not in a position to do this kind of thing anymore. But he met with all the principals and rallied the Europeans to deploy forces and I think this is promising.

We haven’t talked about Iraq. Is that likely to come up?

The whole Iraq experience hangs over the president’s address and hangs over the United States in its diplomacy at the United Nations and worldwide. The American leverage on Iran and even on Darfur is really eroded by the failures in Iraq. We had,for example, the Chinese permanent representative to the United Nations, in talking about Iran, saying “We don’t want another Iraq, we don’t want to jump to conclusions.” So here’s a case where the evidence of Iranian violations is really undisputed and yet because of the Iraq backdrop it’s very difficult to mobilize international opinion.

Where does the UN reform package stand now?

I’m glad you mentioned that because I think this is important. Last year was the sixtieth anniversary of the UN founding and the United Nations convened a world summit which was the largest ever gathering of world leaders. They agreed on a thirty-five-page package of reforms, half of which went to reducing poverty and the other half went to managerial reforms at the United Nations and also some reforms about the purposes of the United Nations. There has been some progress over the last year. There is a better but still troubled Human Rights Council, and you should not forget this is the anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of something called “the responsibility to protect,” the idea that mass atrocities that happen in one country are the responsibility of all countries, notwithstanding all the old excuses about noninterference or the domestic jurisdiction of states. That right now looks like little more than humanitarian hypocrisy as long as there isn’t real action on Darfur.

The United States was looking for all kinds of fiscal reforms as well right?

There have been a fair number of administrative, managerial, [and] accounting reforms inside the secretariat in the areas where the secretary-general has been able to act on his own without the approval of the General Assembly. There has been a fair bit of progress, but in the areas where the General Assembly needs to weigh in, for example micromanaging the budget, right now you would need all 192 members to approve changes to the budget. And in hiring and firing there has not been progress.

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