America, the ICC and the problem of image

I attended a fascinating lecture by John Bellinger, a former legal advisor to George Bush, yesterday, which went some way to explaining why (whatever Barrack Obama’s intentions might be) the US is going to remain outside the International Criminal Court (ICC) for some time to come.

It’s all to do with politics. That and a rather hawkish Senate, the approval of which is necessary for any formal ratification of the Rome Statute. Oh, and the military, which are worried that, should the country join the ICC, the arses of some of the sorry soldiers will be hauled before The Hague. (It was amusing to hear one of the members of the audience, a Pakistani, liken this situation to the military juntas of Latin America and elsewhere – I would have made the comment with tongue-in-cheek, but I don’t think he was).

So, following on from all of this, there are clearly a great many myths surrounding the Obama administration – what his intentions might be and what, in reality, he can actually do.

But all of this presents a big problem – and one that I was hoping Obama would be able to overcome.

As I have written elsewhere in this journal, one of the significant problems with the Bush administration (okay – there were a whole slew of others, too) is that he had a big image problem in the Arab world. See the problem that my students had with him. And then see the euphoria that gripped Sudan upon news of Obama’s election.

So, as I said at the time, I think one of Obama’s biggest achievements is likely to be that, by becoming the first black man in the white house, he has given a whole new face-lift to America. Which the country badly needed.

But there is a danger that, unless Obama takes a braver stand against the hawks of Congress and the Senate, this whole image thing is likely to fade pretty fast. And the presently smooth obsidian skin of America will start to look cracked and parched once again.

Top of my list of concerns, at least as far as Sudan goes, is that the US is heavily backing, through the Security Council, the ICC’s indictment of Bashir. But, of course, it still remains outside of the ICC. Although all of this is perfectly legal – the Security Council being separate from the ICC – the position severely under-cuts America’s legitamacy in Sudan, at least in the eyes of the locals. Even those vehmently opposed to Bashir question why on Earth the US should get involved with the court, when it still hasn’t had the backbone to sign up. The widely-held perception in the country is that the ICC is a western-led plot to topple the current regime. And that smacks of neo-colonialism.

Obama survived his first 100 days, the test of any US president’s mettle, with rather impressive results – certainly, the foreign press love him. But let’s wait to see the assessment after the next 100.

Obama has to face some tough challenges if he is to press ahead with his badly-needed foreign policy initiatives of making the US look good in the world.


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