WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's administration has dropped outright US hostility toward the world's first permanent war crimes court, but it is still a far cry from joining it, experts say.
US officials say the new team is reviewing its policy on the International Criminal Court (ICC) after former president George W. Bush's administration snubbed it and drew fire that it was showing contempt for international law.
But the Obama administration faces several obstacles if it wants to join.
Experts say it could meet resistance from the armed forces and Congress, and any support could vanish if the ICC warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir leads to more, rather than less, bloodshed in Darfur.
John Washburn, who leads a coalition of groups promoting the court's cause in the United States, said the new team is still wary about joining the world's first permanent tribunal for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
But it is not for ideological reasons.
"It has a different view of international law (than the Bush administration). It has a commitment to mulitalateral approaches wherever those are going to be effective," Washburn told AFP.
A State Department official said the Obama administration wants to consult military officials and well as legal and other experts within the government.
"Our policy on the ICC is under review," the official told reporters earlier this month on the condition of anonymity.
"Any look at the ICC has to include the basic fact that the United States has more troops deployed overseas than any other country in the world and that spurious charges against our troops could keep the court and the US military tied up for decades," said the official.
The previous administration not only saw the court as a potential legal trap for its troops overseas but also "as a threat on American sovereignty" and even "as a first step toward global government," Washburn said.
"The Bush administration had a policy of hostility and disengagement," he added.
Patricia Wald, a former judge with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, said the court's actions until now "gives me no cause for concern that service persons would be politically targeted.
"The ICC can handle only a half dozen or so cases at a time and is committed to prosecuting the most serious violators of international humanitarian law," Wald, who is also a former federal judge, said in an e-mail exchange with AFP.
US troops are also protected by so-called status of forces agreements in Iraq and other countries where they are deployed or based, she added.
Wald co-chaired the American Society of International Law's task force on US policy toward the ICC, which recommended last month that the new president adopt a policy of "positive engagement with the court."
Washburn said such engagement could involve a level of cooperation with the court that stops short of joining it and becoming a voting member.
It could, for example, participate in meetings leading up to and including a review conference that would debate amendments to the 1998 Rome Statute, under which the court was launched in 2002.
More than 100 states are now party to it.
Eventually, Washburn said, "you could arrive at a situation some time after the review conference is concluded in 2010 in which the US feels comfortable enough with the court to go for ratification."
The administration, he said, must line up support not only among key members of the military but also those in Congress. Or as he put it, it must make sure "the stars and planets are in conjunction to make sure this happens."
Alex Meixner, an executive with The Save Darfur Coalition, said support for the court also hinges on the outcome of the ICC's March 4 warrant to arrest Beshir on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes.
"If this (warrant) becomes purely a foil for President Beshir to commit yet more crimes, then it would not signal a healthy future for the court," Meixner told AFP.
After the warrant was issued, Sudan ordered the expulsion of 13 foreign aid agencies, sparking deep international concerns about the plight of the people in Darfur.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has welcomed the warrant.