U.S. delegates to the World Conference Against Racism are divided over the decision not to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to Durban. But they appear to agree that the meeting's focus on the Middle East threatens the conference's ability to accomplish anything meaningful.
The senior congressional member of the U.S. delegation in Durban warns the Racism Conference could lose its legitimacy if it is hijacked by "extremists" who want to single out Israel for condemnation.
Rep. Tom Lantos says the preoccupation with the Middle East is pushing other important issues aside, meaning they will not get the attention they deserve.
"I feel passionately about what is happening to the people of Tibet today. I feel passionately about what happens to women in many countries," he said. "None of these issues are on the front burner."
Another member of the U.S. delegation agrees. Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee says the United States and the world need to take a stronger stance with both Israel and the Palestinians. But she indicated that she thinks Durban is not the place to deal with the Middle East conflict because it is not fundamentally a matter of race.
"The world and the United States should spend its every strength in finding a solution to peaceful coexistence, and the saving of lives and the promoting of tolerance for Palestinians and Israelis. The world must demand this of [Israel Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon and [Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat. An economic, political and land-based conflict is not grounded in racism," said the congresswoman.
Ms. Lee is in Durban with a group of minority lawmakers known as the Congressional Black Caucus.
Another member, California Congresswoman Diane Watson, blasted the U.S. government for choosing to send a lower-level delegation to the conference, rather than Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"Shame, shame on America," said Ms. Watson. "America has demonstrated its reluctance to sit at the table of nations to discuss past policies that have contaminated our very relationships between the majority and the minority."
Her feelings were echoed by the six other members of the Congressional Black Caucus present in Durban. All of them are members of the Democratic Party. They could be expected to criticize the decision of the Republican Bush administration.
But Mr. Lantos is also a Democrat, and he defended President Bush's choice to keep the secretary of state at home.
"You know, this pathological preoccupation with Colin Powell is an indication of how phony the dialogue is here. I mean, we are not imbeciles on the American delegation. You have some very senior members of congress of the United States - blacks, non-blacks - with a deep determination to fight discrimination in all its forms. We have an outstanding diplomatic delegation. And the media keep repeating the mantra [that we have a] low-level [delegation]. Well, we are not low-level. We are intelligent representatives of the American people," said Mr. Lantos.
The United States chose not to send Mr. Powell to Durban because it objects to language critical of Israel in the declaration scheduled to be adopted when the conference ends. If other delegations do not agree to soften that language, Mr. Lantos says the U.S. delegation could still walk out of the conference.
He says he has spoken privately with delegates from many other nations who agree with the U.S. stance. But he says they lack the guts to say so publicly.