January 24, 2011

GOP Congress Takes On UN

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the newly minted Republican chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is well-known for her tough line on US adversaries like North Korea, Iran and Venezuela. But she also has her sights set on what conservatives there see as another nest of anti-Americanism: the UN.

By Shaun Waterman for ISN Insights


US Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-born foreign policy hawk, told a sympathetic blogger that her priorities were "promoting the interests of the United States of America - not being ashamed of American exceptionalism. We need to get back to the basics and make no apologies."

Republicans, who now control the junior chamber of Congress, have made it clear that their main priorities are domestic: a symbolic repeal of President Barack Obama's new health care law and deep tax and spending cuts.

But Ros-Lehtinen has also pledged tough hearings on the Obama administration's foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, where she is a staunch supporter of Israel and a critic of US engagement with Iran, and the western hemisphere - where she has promised to oppose any Cuba thaw and push a harder line on populist or left-wing governments like that of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

A resurgent foreign policy agenda

And this month, the congresswoman announced that one of the first topics her committee would take up was the UN, with legislation and hearings on its "urgent problems that need congressional action."

According to a summary of the congresswoman's proposed legislation reported by news agency AFP, it would create a special inspector general to "track how US dues to the United Nations are used, and would withhold US monies from UN entities that do not cooperate with such oversight."

It also calls for US dues to the UN to be docked by amounts that reflect UN spending on its human rights and nuclear watchdogs, because of the involvement of those bodies in countries the US regards as major human rights abusers or sponsors of terrorism.

"I plan on using US contributions […] as leverage to press for real reform" of the UN, she promised, pledging "withdrawal of US funds to failed entities like the discredited [UN] Human Rights Council if improvements are not made."

UN reform is a theme that Republicans in the House have hammered on for many years. Critics see it as an anti-UN and anti-internationalist agenda.

Indeed, for many US conservatives, the UN has long been a triple-headed hydra, representing simultaneously the abandonment of principled stance in favor of diplomatic accommodation; the abridgement of US sovereignty by its participation in international institutions; and the corruption and inefficiency of poorly supervised government bureaucracies, especially foreign ones.

In the Senate, on the other hand, Democrats still have a majority and even among Republicans the more realpolitick and moderate wing of the Party has historically predominated.

Republican moderates like Senator Richard Lugar, who has been the senior-most GOP member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 2003, recognize that the UN, as he put it "remains an essential component of global security policy."

Lugar has praised the World Health Organization and the World Food Program, saying they "performed vital functions, reduced US burdens, and achieved impressive humanitarian results for many years," and notes that UN peacekeeping missions "have contributed significantly to international stability and helped rebuild shattered societies."

Nonetheless, even in the Senate there is broad support, including among Democrats, for the reform agenda Ros-Lehtinen is pledging to push. "Support for the UN requires us to work to address legitimate flaws including corruption scandals, abuse by peacekeepers, and bureaucratic gridlock," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democratic Chairman Senator John Kerry.

Slashing spending

US funding for the UN, which runs at about half a billion dollars this year, with another $2.1 billion for peacekeeping, means that the issue of UN reform also meshes with one of the key messages Republicans are pushing in the new congress - the need to slash government spending to reduce deficits and pay for tax cuts.

Ros-Lehtinen's committee does not provide funding for the State Department, which pays US dues to the UN - that is done by separate appropriations committees - but it does pass an annual bill that directs the administration's spending on foreign policy.

"I will work to restore fiscal discipline to foreign affairs," pledged Ros-Lehtinen, "reform troubled programs and organizations, [and] exercise vigorous oversight to identify waste, fraud, and abuse."

She said she had "identified and will propose a number of cuts to the State Department and Foreign Aid budgets," which contained "much fat," making "some cuts obvious."

"We must shift our foreign aid focus from failed strategies rooted in an archaic post-WW II approach that, in some instances, perpetuates corrupt governments, to one that reflects current realities and challenges and empowers grassroots and civil society," she said.

That echoes another theme in conservative critiques of the UN - that the organization coddles dictators and treats kleptocratic autocracies more favorably than struggling democracies. The poster child for this principle, according to conservatives: the UN Oil for Food program, designed to allow the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to sell sanctioned oil and buy humanitarian supplies, but which ended up as a conduit for rank corruption and sanctions-busting.

The program was the subject of a huge investigation by the Volker committee, which found that only about two percent of its funds had been corruptly diverted, a feat The Economist called "almost squeaky-clean by the commercial standards of some energy-rich states."

Nonetheless, conservative journalists like Claudia Rossetti highlighted abuses of the program as part of a crusade against the UN, the culminating fruit of which was the recess appointment by President George W Bush of John Bolton as US ambassador to the UN.

Bolton had failed to win Senate confirmation, in part because of his outspoken criticism of the UN, which included the assertion that "If the UN secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference."

Rossetti, alongside Brett Schaefer, of the Heritage Foundation - who co-wrote a book about the UN with Bolton - will testify this week at a House Foreign Affairs Committee briefing on UN issues for the new Congress.

No witnesses from the administration are scheduled to appear, but doubtless their turn will come.

If the Oil for Food program hearings in 2004-5 before the House Foreign Affairs Committee - then chaired by Republican Henry Hyde of Illinois, and overseeing the Bush administration - are any guide, officials will struggle in the face of a generally skeptical panel to tell their story: that the US is working hard, both in front of and behind the scenes, to improve efficiency and accountability at the UN.

Worse, they will not have the advantage their predecessors in 2004-5 had - of party compatriots staffing and chairing the hearings. On the contrary, Democrats on the committee, with an eye on an angry electorate that punished them at the polls last year, are likely to harry Obama officials almost as hard as Republicans.

With the changed political dynamic and a membership and staff with a reputation for "going for the jugular," officials are likely to find the hearings uncomfortable, and the narrative they produce - of an administration that continues to be wedded to a hopelessly corrupt and politically paralyzed international bureaucracy - unhelpful.

"That witness chair is going to be a very hot seat," predicted one Democratic government official about the new committee leadership.

Any legislation Ros-Lehtinen's committee produces is almost certain to pass the House, where conservative Republicans predominate, and the rules create an effective dictatorship of the majority.

But before it can become law, legislation also has to be passed by the Senate, where Democrats and more centrist Republicans hold sway and have in the past helped to water down anti-UN measures.

Shaun Waterman is an award-winning reporter for the Washington Times, covering foreign affairs, defense and cybersecurity. He was a senior editor and correspondent for United Press International for nearly a decade, and has covered the Department of Homeland Security since 2003. He holds a Master’s degree in social and political sciences from King’s College, Cambridge.

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