Barely a week after Barack Obama plunged into the UN for three unprecedented days, winning hearts and minds all around for demonstrating that indeed the United States was back, the reconciliation is already showing fault lines.
On Wednesday, the United Nations confirmed that Peter Galbraith, the American diplomat appointed deputy special UN envoy to Afghanistan in March after lobbying from the Obama administration, was being fired "in the best interests of the [Afghan] mission." Galbraith, a friend of Richard Holbrooke, Washington's roving troubleshooter in the region, had been berating Afghan and UN officials over what he saw as an inadequate response to the messy and fraud-plagued August 20 elections. Both men have short fuses.
Galbraith--who had been part of Hillary Clinton's foreign policy gang during the presidential primaries, another interesting twist--was also publicly at odds in Kabul with the UN's top envoy, Kai Eide of Norway, whose tone in dealing with the Afghan government was more, well, diplomatic. The European media has been pursuing this story for weeks, and saw the crash coming before this year's General Assembly session opened.
Clinton, asked by reporters about what she thought of Galbraith's dismissal, would say only that this was "a United Nations matter." But it will be bait to the right-wing fringe looking for new reasons to trash the UN, even if Galbraith is a Democrat. Galbraith himself has turned on the organization. In an interview with the BBC he said, "I think it sends a terrible signal when the UN removes an official because he was concerned about fraud in a UN-sponsored and funded election."
Mike Huckabee, a leading Republican hopeful for 2012, was already in the fray, using language in describing the General Assembly session that people around the UN hoped was dead or dying.
On Monday in a Fox News commentary, Huckabee said he came close to pulling out a gun and shooting the TV screen when he saw the UN allowing "murdering thugs and despicable despots" like Muammar Qaddafi, Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak. (Why has discourse, even in foreign affairs, become so violent in its imagery?)
In a neat segue to the president, Huckabee repeated the refrain of the provincials and isolationists that Obama is spending too much time apologizing to the world. It does not auger well for the United States if this line of thinking becomes a theme for the Republicans next year and in the next presidential election beyond that.
The political consequences could be unfortunate, to use a diplomatic word. It is worth remembering that Republicans with similar views did a lot to cool Bill Clinton's administration on the UN and on international cooperation generally in the late 1990s. The United States backed away then from serious energy and climate change policies. A nuclear test ban agreement was set back. A secretary-general was turfed out in the most inelegant fashion. And all that was before the Bush and Bolton team took over.