Schoolyard Bully Diplomacy

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

October 16, 2005

NIAMEY, Niger

This is a land of thatch-roof mud huts and malnourished children, of whom one in four dies by the age of 5. It's the very least developed country in the world, according to the U.N., and lives here can be saved for pennies.

It's also a rare Muslim country where everybody beams when I say I'm from the U.S.: people express a warm thanks for American assistance, and then ask eagerly if I know how they can get U.S. visas.

So here we have a strongly pro-American democracy - yes, a beacon of democracy in Africa and the Muslim world - that is desperately needy, and what are we doing? Sadly, we're bullying Niger and dozens of other poor countries and cutting off some aid to many of them because of their support for the International Criminal Court.

About 50 of the countries that support the International Criminal Court are unwilling or unable to give the U.S. the "bilateral immunity agreement" that Washington demands to prevent Americans from being prosecuted. Niger, for example, has determined that its Constitution does not allow it to grant the immunity agreement.

So the Bush administration is cutting off certain military aid and "economic support funds" to a couple of dozen of these governments, mostly in Latin America and Africa. The main result has been to undermine our friends and confirm every prejudice that people abroad have about Americans as schoolyard bullies.

"This is blackmail!" declared The Sunday Nation in an editorial in Kenya. And The Daily Nation quoted a member of Kenya's Parliament, Paul Muite, as saying: "They can keep their dollars as long as they [do not] respect our dignity. It is not only Americans who can train our military personnel, and it is time we started looking at the European Union, China, South Africa or even Japan for such training."

In Jordan, one house of Parliament has tried to block the immunity agreement, although the final outcome is uncertain. Nigeria's Parliament is now considering rescinding its immunity arrangement, as a way to poke the bully in the eye.

"Absolutely no one is going to make me cower," Ecuador's president, Alfredo Palacio, declared in June, affirming his refusal to sign an immunity agreement with the U.S.

Osama bin Laden must be thrilled at the way we have managed to antagonize our traditional friends and give comfort to our enemies.

Frankly, I'm only a tepid supporter of the International Criminal Court. It would be useful in some situations, but I think liberals sometimes put too much faith in legal institutions that often make little difference on the ground. And the court's current annual budget of $79 million might well be better spent fighting malaria or starting schools.

But I also think that the Bush administration is delusional in its terror of the court. The terms of the court make it very unlikely that it is ever going to hound American officials or military officers. And while we have little to fear from the court, we have plenty to worry about if we continue to antagonize the rest of the world.

Frankly, the Bush administration's campaign to bully poor countries over the court is cultivating more ill will toward the U.S. than extremist madrassas ever could have.

Our first misstep came in 2002 when Congress passed the American Servicemembers' Protection Act, which curbed military aid to countries that back the court but do not sign immunity agreements with the U.S. Then the Nethercutt amendment last year cut "economic support funds" for those same governments (it may be possible to redirect some of the money to private aid groups in those countries).

These economic support funds include humanitarian programs for health care, wheelchair distribution and AIDS education, as well as money for overseas anti-drug and anti-terror programs that are for our own benefit. The American military has already complained to Congress that the sanctions have cut links between U.S. officers and their Latin American counterparts, creating an opportunity for China to fill the gap.

It looks like the ideologues, in Congress and the Bush administration, who backed this legislation are already hurting America more than the International Criminal Court ever could. And aside from the damage to our own image and alliances, we're taking the children of countries like Niger hostage by threatening: Unless you give us an immunity agreement, those kids will die.

Come on, President Bush! Is that really what your administration stands for?