Joining the Jackals—Again?

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In the aftermath of Benjamin Netanyahu's inconvenient (to Barack Obama) victory in the Israeli election, it looks like the administration is heading towards exacting revenge. The administration's threat is that under President Obama the United States will "join the jackals"—the permanent, global, virulently anti-Israel caucus at the United Nations.  The phrase comes from the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who knew a thing or two about Israel-hatred at the U.N. (and famously denounced it in 1975 when he was the U.S. ambassador). 

This gambit has been tried before, disastrously, under President Jimmy Carter. Moynihan's masterful dissection of Carter's failed and self-destructive policy, in the February 1981 issue of Commentary“Joining the Jackals: The U.S. at the U.N.”—is well worth re-reading today. Here are some of the highlights:

A defeat so overwhelming as that which Governor Reagan inflicted on President Carter soon takes on the air of the inevitable. Before it does it may be useful to record that those who were defeated in no way looked upon the outcome as fated. To the contrary, the view in the White House was that things were going well until March 1, when Ambassador Donald F. McHenry voted in favor of a particularly vicious anti-Israel resolution in the Security Council of the United Nations, followed three weeks later by the appearance of Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which he refused to disavow the vote. Thereafter, in this view, everything spun out of control. The Carter administration left Washington convinced—and proclaiming—that defeat was brought on by malevolent incompetence at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations and the inability of the Secretary of State to control the Mission. What they did not proclaim and only dimly understood was that they themselves had put in place the ideas which helped bring them down; that indeed in that sense the outcome was fated.

Set forth by President Carter and others, the sequence of events was as follows. Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s challenge to the President began poorly. On March 18 the two met in Illinois, the first industrial state to hold a primary. The President won handily. If Kennedy could be beaten a week later, in New York, his candidacy would collapse. A private poll conducted by Dresner, Morris & Tortorello Research in late January and early February showed the President leading the Senator 54 percent to 28 percent among probable Democratic primary voters in New York, with only 13 percent undecided. Yet in the end, Kennedy won, 59 percent to 41 percent.

In a gracious gesture, after the results were in, Lieutenant Governor Mario M. Cuomo, who headed Mr. Carter’s campaign in New York, called the President to apologize. “No,” said Mr. Carter as reported in the New York Times, “it was the United Nations vote.” In an interview with Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post on March 27, Mr. Carter, speaking of an incumbent’s problems in running for reelection, repeated the point:

. . . Then to make a mistake like we did on the UN vote and have the Secretary of State testify a few days before the election. . . .

The same theme was sounded, finally, in a postmortem by Steven R. Weisman and Terence Smith of the Times after the national election:

This blunder, in which the administration first voted in favor of a March 1 resolution rebuking Israel on settlements in Arab-claimed territory and then disavowed it, cost the President dearly among Jewish voters in the March 18 [sic] New York primary. Senator Kennedy carried the state and attracted new contributions to his campaign, which carried on through the last batch of primaries on June 3.

“New York was our chance to knock Kennedy out of the box early,” said Mr. [Robert S.] Strauss, the campaign chairman. “We blew it with that vote.”

Jody Powell told the Times reporters that in consequence, “We sure as hell spent a lot of time and money fighting him that would have been better spent against Reagan.”

Now it will be clear that there are many reasons President Carter lost the election, of which the UN vote was only one and scarcely the most important. What is important, however, is that the administration had looked upon its United Nations record as a huge success. Other policies had failed, and that proved costly. But this had succeeded, and proved costly. When the fall of a President is involved, and possibly also the fall of a party, some notice should be taken. For I do not conceal my judgment that so long as the ideas underlying the Carter administration’s UN policy are dominant within the Democratic party, we Democrats will be out of power.

***

Before defeat in the 1980 election forced a different conclusion upon them, the Carter people were of the opinion that the experiment had been a brilliant success. From the 1980 Democratic platform—prepared in cooperation with the staff of the National Security Council—one learned that when the administration came to power in 1977,

relations with the Third World were at their nadir. The United States appeared hostile and indifferent to the developing world’s aspirations for greater justice, respect, and dignity. All this has changed.

Testifying before a House Subcommittee on March 27, 1980 (two days, mind, after the New York primary), Assistant Secretary Maynes spoke even more glowingly of changes that had come over the UN:

. . . the UN has become the crossroad of global diplomacy.

. . . [It] now appears to be less unfriendly and dangerous a place than some have led us to believe. It is also possible that we will find there a greater spirit of cooperation than before—not just in condemning the lawless but also in advancing the rule of law. But these promises may come to naught unless we adopt a more mature stance toward the UN itself.

We must remind ourselves that the United States needs the UN at least as much as it needs us.

***

No less evident was what the United States Mission to the United Nations should have done. The Arab nations were split; the United States was, in effect, allied with the largest of them, Egypt, and in the cause of peace in the Middle East. The Soviet Union, though it might declare that “thugs in Afghanistan” were “tormenting schoolchildren” for the profit of Zionists, had established itself beyond all question as a brutal conqueror of Third World peoples and as an anti-Semitic regime of near demented proportions. The moment to fragment or silence the opposition was at hand.

Faced with this assault on the UN Charter, on peace, on decency—and, not so incidentally, on the President of the United States—what did our people do? They took the other side.

To persons whose deepest conviction was that Third World nations were hostile to the United States because of our own neocolonial behavior; whose strong disposition was to believe that the Soviet Union in almost all instances supported the true liberationist forces in the former colonial world while the United States, on the wrong side of history, backed brutal but doomed dictatorships—the events from 1977 to 1980 could make no sense.

Confused, and after a point not altogether straightforward, the strategy of our diplomats in New York, backed up in the Department of State, started to undergo a subtle and disastrous transformation. They had begun with the proposition that if the United States put itself on the “right” side of history, we would find the nations of the world, most of which of course were “new,” coming over to our side in turn. Unaccountably, however, they were still not on our side. To the contrary, some were actively seeking to undo the greatest diplomatic achievement the administration had to its credit, and none—not one—was objecting to or trying to impede such efforts. Evidently, then, we must still be on the wrong side. Reasoning thus, our diplomats prepared themselves to vote for the Security Council Resolution of March 1, 1980 and (though this was certainly not their intention) to help bring down the administration they served.

***

Once the vote was cast there came the shock of recognition, in Washington at least, that this was what that conception led to. But still they clung to it. The White House, sensing the disaster and the dilemma, did not want any testimony given before Congress. The State Department insisted, and so on March 20 the New York Times reported:

Vance Rebuffs Call for Full Disavowal of UN’s Israel Move

Yet it was more than that. Vance would neither disavow the episode nor acknowledge it. He could not bring himself to admit consequences he could not desire of a policy he could not repudiate.

***

American failure was total. And it was squalid. These men, in New York and Washington, helped to destroy the President who appointed them, deeply injured the President’s party, hurt the United States, and hurt nations that have stood with the United States in seeking something like peace in the Middle East. They came to office full of themselves and empty of any steady understanding of the world. The world was a more dangerous place when at last they went away.

***

Still, with the experience of these four years, we should at least have learned that foreign policy cannot be conducted under the pretense that we have no enemies in the world—or at any rate none whose enmity we have not merited by our own conduct. For it was this idea more than anything else, perhaps, that led the Carter administration into disaster abroad and overwhelming defeat at home.

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