Thursday, 16 March 2006

The symbolic misuses of politics

Sometimes when you vote in a legislative body, the smart move is to vote for final passage of something that’s not entirely perfect—not, mind you, because your vote matters in the final outcome, but because whatever symbolic value your stand will have will be lost in the muddle of the discussion (see Cleland, ex-Senator Max for the prototypical example).

The administration made exactly this mistake when it chose to vote against the establishment of the new U.N. Human Rights Council yesterday, and went down to ignomious defeat by a 170–4 margin (with three abstentions, two from current human rights cesspools Belarus and Iran, and one from probable future human rights bad boy Venezuela), despite some quite legitimate objections to the new body’s election rules, which had been watered down since the original proposal by Kofi Annan.

So, instead of registering these complaints through some procedure other than voting against final passage of the resolution, the administration instead generated negative public relations fodder like a headline blaring that this represents a ”[h]uman rights defeat for [the] US” and a lede that states that the no vote was an effort to “derail” the formation of the new body, when in fact the administration did not try to derail it at all, instead (further going against “type”) supporting the original proposal from Annan (by the way, that is not an atypical read on the vote).

Bear in mind that, unlike the Kyoto situation (where many of the signatories and ratifiers have no ability to abide, and/or no intention of abiding, by the spirit or letter of the text, and thus not making a fraudulent U.S. commitment was the correct decision) this vote was a purely symbolic exercise—one that, probably wouldn’t have bought the U.S. any real goodwill had it gone the other way, but nonetheless wasn’t worth generating additional gratuitous animosity toward the U.S.

As for the domestic politics angle, the constituency for a “no” vote in this particular instance was about six people, all of whom were going to vote for Pat Buchanan or some Constitution Party lunatic anyway; the mainstream anti-UN crowd in the GOP coalition already was placated by the Bolton appointment, and this vote wouldn’t have made any real difference with them.