The Obama administration and the United States as a whole will be haunted for a long time by the decision to boycott a United Nations international conference on racism and intolerance starting today in Geneva.

A brief five-paragraph statement announcing the decision was released by the State Department on Saturday evening while everyone was focused elsewhere: this time on the summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. There, paradoxically, White House officials were happy to stress to reporters the importance the president placed on racial diversity and multiculturalism.

But the big test was not in Trinidad. It was in Geneva, where scores of nations are meeting to review the outcome of a 2001 conference in Durban, South Africa, which was marred by hate speech against Israel and the West. The United States walked out of that meeting, along with Israel, before a final document was agreed upon that for all its potentially loaded language dealt with significant American criticisms.

For the review that runs all this week, many nations have worked for months in bare-knuckle negotiations to create a report erasing offensive provisions, a report that the United States–a hoped for shining star with its first African-American president–could live with.

Instead, the United States turned its back on a chance to do more to enhance its image across the developing world than any grand tour of Europe could ever accomplish. Washington ran away from a confrontation that many struggling human rights activists in the poorest and often most repressed countries would have welcomed. A lot of nations could do with a stern lecture on tolerance and the treatment of minorities from President Obama. Now the brazen troublemakers have been ceded the floor. This “triumph” will embolden them and color other UN forums to come.

In the United States the reaction from human rights organizations and other interested groups was immediate. In a statement given to CNN, the Congressional Black Caucus said it was “deeply dismayed” by the decision. “Had the United States sent a high-level delegation reflecting the richness and diversity of our country, it would have sent a powerful message to the world that we’re ready to lead by example,” the caucus said. “Instead, the administration opted to boycott the conference, a decision that does not advance the cause of combating racism and intolerance but rather sets the cause back.”

Juliette de Rivero, advocacy director in Geneva for Human Rights Watch, said: “The boycott plays into the hands of those who want the conference to fail. The only ones celebrating will be those who want to undermine efforts to defeat racism and protect rights.”

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, a South African who sent nations (many of them friends of the United States) back to the drawing board to produce an acceptable document and who from the start wanted to make this conference global in scope and move the fight out of the introverted Middle East, said Sunday that she was “shocked and deeply disappointed” by the US decision.

“A handful of states have permitted one or two issues to dominate their approach to this issue, allowing them to outweigh the concerns of numerous groups of people that suffer racism and similar forms of intolerance to a pernicious and life-damaging degree on a daily basis all across the world, in both developed and developing countries,” she said in a statement. “These are truly global issues, and it is essential that they are discussed at a global level, however sensitive and difficult they may be.”

Within the United Nations, there were hopes until the last minute that the United States would attend the conference, even if it had to be at a low level of representation. Now there is disappointment and despair that Europeans, perhaps giving Obama the benefit of the doubt, also are leaving. Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Poland are among those boycotting the conference along with the United States and Israel. Britain sent only a low-level delegation.

From the State Department, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a staunch supporter of Israel, was apparently adamant in her objections to American attendance and ultimately got her way, came this official explanation: “The United States is deeply grateful to the many country delegations, including Russia as chair, and senior United Nations officials who have worked steadfastly to improve the review conference outcome document and to re-focus the Durban Review Conference squarely on racism and discrimination. We applaud the progress that has been made. The current document is significantly improved compared with prior versions, which is an accomplishment for all who aim to build a world free of every form of discrimination.

“However, the text still contains language that reaffirms in toto the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA) from 2001, which the United States has long said it is unable to support.”

It is understandable that the United States, with a tough job ahead in trying to negotiate peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, would be wary of offending an Israeli government already hostile to talks. But that was not what the State Department said publicly or what the rest of the world will draw from the American decision. For nations from the Arab Middle East to South Asia to Indonesia, the message will be QED: the United States, as always, defers to Israel.

But what the posse of hatemongers who deny their own abuses, led by the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Group of 77 (Pakistan included), do not seem to realize as they pursue in every possible venue their vendetta against Israel is the damage they do to the United Nations, most of all in the United States. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the only head of a major government present, made a keynote speech today, he did not disappoint.

He proclaimed that Europe and the United States had sent Jews to Israel to colonize Palestinian lands and establish a “racist” government.” A flock of diplomats walked out of the hall, adding to the public relations disaster this conference has become.

Would an American delegation bearing a message from Obama have made a difference? Critics will say no. Nicole Lee, executive director of the Washington-based TransAfrica Forum, has long argued that the United States belongs at the Durban review. In a message in March asking advocates of American attendance to write to anyone and everyone in Washington, she recalled the comment by Attorney General Eric Holder that Americans are a “nation of cowards” when it comes to discussing race.

What she wrote then still rings true: “The decision to boycott the Durban Review Conference not only underscores the difficulty that we have discussing race, but it also potentially undermines the solid progress made by groups and governments around the world that have worked hard to address racism and intolerance. And, unfortunately, for many in the US it raises questions about the racial lens through which this administration develops and implements policy.”