Clinton: Calling Assad a war criminal doesn't help

I've speculated recently that the absence of serious discussion about referring Syria to the International Criminal Court--a step that would require a UN Security Council resolution--reflects more than just a gloomy realization that Russia and China would likely veto such an attempt. I think the Libya experience in some respects soured the Obama administration, and maybe other Western states, on ICC referrals in the midst of conflict. In comments before a Senate committee today, Hillary Clinton gave the strongest indication yet that the United States doesn't see international justice as helpful in the Syrian context:

"Based on definitions of war criminal and crimes against humanity, there would be an argument to be made that he would fit into that category," Clinton told a Senate hearing on the State Department budget.

"People have been putting forth the argument," the chief US diplomat said.

"But I also think that from long experience that can complicate a resolution of a difficult, complex situation because it limits options to persuade leaders perhaps to step down from power," Clinton said.

This is a remarkably broad statement that flies in the face of a lot of American rhetoric (though not necessarily American practice) regarding international justice. I'd expect that Clinton will get some serious pushback from the human rights community--and that she may feel compelled to walk back her statement.

The Multilateralist

U.S. undercuts Lagarde's fundraising campaign

Poor Christine Lagarde. Even as the IMF managing director seeks to drum up new resources for the Fund to help prevent a European meltdown, senior U.S. officials keep signaling a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

Lagarde has argued repeatedly that the IMF needs to boost its lending capacity to nearly $900 billion and has been making that case around the world, including in Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Brazil, China, and at Davos. Lagarde acknowledges of course that the onus is on Europe to craft a more robust response, in particular by merging the two bailout funds Europe has already created. And she's certainly not keen to accentuate any differences with the United States, the IMF's largest shareholder.

But the differences are impossible to ignore, and this weekend's meeting of the G20 highlighted them. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner repeated the administration's mantra that substantial IMF action would be premature. Via Reuters:

"There is broad agreement that the IMF cannot substitute for the absence of a stronger European firewall and the IMF cannot move forward without more clarity on Europe's own plans," Geithner said.

The U.S. Treasury chief repeated that he was not prepared to go to Congress now to seek more resources for the IMF because he didn't feel they were needed at this time.

He declined to say how big a financial firewall he felt Europe needed to put up now but noted that, in order to be credible in markets, it had to be bigger relative to possible claims that might be made on it. 

For her part, Lagarde appeared to acknowledge this weekend that her dreams of a much bigger IMF war chest won't be realized any time soon. "Raising significantly the firepower of the IMF is not something you can do by flicking your fingers," she said.

What's at work here are different responsibilities and political realities as much as different economic analyses. Senior IMF officials have a responsibility to the international system as a whole and do not face the political pressures politicians do. The IMF appears to have accepted that Europe, for a host of architectural and historical reasons, may be unable to devise its own solution to the debt crisis in a timely manner and are determined to put a backup system is in place.

My sense is that U.S. officials share those fears, but they face the countervailing political reality that Congress, not to mention Republican presidential candidates, would howl about new U.S. funds to "bailout" Europe. And that makes all the difference. Because of immediate political pressures, the United States is willing to run the risk that there simply won't be a firewall. Lagarde, as steward of the global financial system, is much less comfortable doing so.