With the United Nations General Assembly’s 69th annual opening about to begin its “High-Level Week” of summits and speeches in New York, the State Department has been pushing out material highlighting the UN’s core role in the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Among the most avid of these endorsements is an article released Sept. 17 by the State Department, on its official Dipnote blog, headlined: “UNGA 69: Why the UN Matters More Than Ever.”
Near breathless in its enthusiasm for the”diplomatic marvel” of the UN General Assembly opening, the article begins by reeling off a few facts and figures about this event, including a statement that: “World leaders and representatives from 194 countries will come together to work on an agenda packed with burning issues… .”
Whoa. Let’s replay that tape. Did State really mean to say “194 countries”? There are only 193 countries in the UN. So, what is this 194th country that State was referring to?
Wondering if there might be some story here of a new UN member state that even the UN did not know about, I emailed the State Department to ask what this mysterious 194th country might be.
A State Department official wrote back to say, oops, the article “should have read ‘193 countries.’ ” The State official added: “The drafter of the blog put in the wrong number, and we unfortunately did not catch the error before it was posted to the web.”
Well, we all make mistakes. But this mistake is not small. For years now, under the slogan “Palestine 194,” the Palestinian Authority has been campaigning to be admitted to the UN as the 194th member state. Officially, the U.S. is opposed to any such admission, unless and until the Palestinians have kept their promise to negotiate a viable peace with Israel. But within the Obama administration there has been a lot of foot-dragging on this policy, accompanied by attempts to erode it. This has included administration pressure on Congress to waive laws that forbid U.S. funding to any multilateral body (notably, to date, UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) that admits the Palestinians to full membership before they have kept their promise of peace.
When the State Department puts out an article describing the UN General Assembly opening as bringing together “194 countries,” it looks less like a mistake than a sly attempt to rewrite official U.S. policy by referring to the Palestinians as the 194th UN member state. Especially when the State Department, instead of correcting its mistake, blasts out the same article a few days later, including the reference to “194 countries,” in a list of “Highlights of the UN 69th General Assembly High-Level Week.”
But OK, let’s give State the benefit of the doubt, and believe that it was just a bad week for taxpayer-funded diplomatic bloggers doing arithmetic. This particular mistake still looks terrible. The author whose byline appears on this State Department article was not some befuddled intern. Officially, this article was written by one of the most senior State Department officials responsible for interacting with the UN, Assistant Secretary of State Dean Pittman. He signed his name to it as head of State’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs, which describes itself on its web site as “the U.S. Government’s primary interlocutor with the United Nations.” Pittman, a career foreign service officer, had occupied this important role since last September.
Did Pittman not know that the UN has 193 member countries? Or did Pittman not bother to read the State Department article enthusing under his own name about the UN, and pushed out repeatedly — mistake no object — to the media and American public? Was Pittman unaware that such a mistake carries connotations of a major shift in official U.S. policy, including, at Israel’s expense, a privilege the Palestinians have not earned? Ultimately, whose “error” was this?
On Friday, a new assistant secretary of state, Bathsheba Nell Crocker, was sworn in to head State’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs — having been confirmed just this past Thursday. So it appears that Pittman has been replaced — though for reasons having nothing to do with the disturbing inaccuracy that topped his article Wednesday on the marvels of the UN.
Crocker at her confirmation hearing earlier this year testified that she would fight the UN’s “disproportionate and unjust attention paid to Israel.” She added, “If confirmed, I will fight bias against Israel whenever and wherever possible.” Will she? One test of this would be whether she makes a clear and direct effort to correct her predecessor’s “error,” which — deliberate or not — skates all too close to hinting that the State Department itself is rife with underhanded bias against Israel.