WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is weighing its options on who, if anybody, should represent the United States at a U.N. conference on racism in South Africa now that Secretary of State Colin Powell is not going.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials preparing for a special U.N. General Assembly session on children next month are seeking to avoid any declaration that supports or advances abortion, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
But he dismissed published reports that the United States may not participate, saying he has "every expectation that we will be there."
Another official, asking not to be identified, said cabinet-level officials are expected to attend.
U.N. officials insist the conference document will not contain any language on abortion.
"It is not about abortion, none of the documents refer directly, indirectly or any other way to abortion and never have," UNICEF spokeswoman Liza Barrie said.
On the racism conference, the administration could decide to send a delegation from Washington or from southern Africa, or it might decide to send no one at all, a senior official said Monday night. The conference is set to begin Friday in Durban, South Africa.
If the Washington option were chosen, the announcement could come as early as Tuesday given the limited time left before the conference starts, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The State Department ended long weeks of speculation Monday by announcing that Powell had decided not to attend because of Arab-backed "offensive language" that accused Israel of implementing racist policies against Palestinians. The United States stand drew praise from pro-Israeli groups and a sharp rebuke from the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday that with the conference just days away, the administration could wait no longer to announce Powell's plans.
Boucher said the administration is disturbed by the focus that many countries want to place on Israel.
"It's the only country that seems to be singled out," he said.
There were indications of a willingness among some delegations to be more accommodating toward the American and Israeli positions, but a senior official said Monday night the administration was not impressed.
The official noted that conciliatory language agreed to at this stage could be scrapped and replaced by tendentious wording once the conference began.
Jackson, flying to Durban on Tuesday to join other U.S. civil rights activists at the conference, said in a telephone interview that Powell's decision not to attend represents "a huge step backward toward isolationism."
"At a time when we should be showing leadership in having a multiracial, multicultural society, we are choosing isolation," he said, adding that sending a low-level delegation to the conference would be "a global insult."
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., praised Powell's decision. As a world leader in the fight against racism, "the United States must not dignify this anti-Israel lynching with its high-level participation," said Lantos, a member of the House International Relations Committee.
The decision also was praised by the pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League.
Glen Tobias, ADL national chairman, and Abraham Foxman, its national director, said the decision sends a clear message that "the United States will not legitimize the attempts to resurrect unfounded anti-Israel and anti-Jewish canards" at the U.N. conference.
But Gerald LeMelle, a top official of Amnesty International USA, said Powell's decision not to go was very disappointing.
"There has been no serious thought as to the role the United States could play," LeMelle said. "Who is going to start leading us away from racial strife in Rwanda, Burundi, Kosovo, Cincinnati?
"Race was at the core of all of these issues. Who is going to show leadership? It's not going to be the Chinese or the Russians. It has to be the U.S. They don't seem to be seizing the moment."