Robert Novak

On March 31, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist turned what had been a sequestered argument into a public debate. He issued a statement claiming the Council "makes only superficial changes," contending it "will not prevent serial human rights abusers from gaining membership and cannot be relied upon to monitor human rights abuses throughout the world."

Although this was a presidential decision, the call clearly was the secretary of the state's. Even after Frist's intervention and the majority leader's intention to pass a Senate resolution on the subject before the Easter recess, the word circulating in State Department corridors was that Burns probably would persuade Rice to accept the Council. Burns can be very persuasive. Last week, he talked Sen. Norm Coleman, the first-term Republican from Minnesota who has been a stalwart in exposing UN corruption, into giving the Council a chance to work.

Burns was too isolated on this issue to prevail. But the State Department's explanation for the decision not to participate, given in unattributed statements to reporters, made it appear that course was taken because the U.S. candidate for the Council might lose. "It's a question more of tactics than principle," a "senior U.S. official" was quoted as saying in a Reuters dispatch. The same official then went on to say "we'll probably run for a seat later on."

That sounds like Nick Burns or at least someone who reflects his opinion. It is an absolute rejection of Frist's arguments. When the decision was announced Thursday, Frist declared: "The administration's decision to oppose U.S. membership on the new Council will uphold America's credibility on the issue of human rights and deny the Council unwarranted legitimacy." That does not sound like the State Department's rationale for the UN decision, and that underlines the question of who really runs the State Department.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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