The Cable

House Republicans' next target: the United Nations

The new GOP leadership in the House is promising to aggressively confront the Obama administration on a full range of foreign policy issues. Now, it has reopened the debate over the performance and reform of the United Nations.

"Policy on the United Nations should based on three fundamental questions: Are we advancing the American interests? Are we upholding American values? Are we being responsible stewards for the American taxpayer dollars?" read the opening statement by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) at Tuesday's committee briefing on the U.N. "Unfortunately, right now, the answer to all three questions is no."

Ros-Lehtinen, who didn't attend the hearing because she was in Florida tending to her ill mother, criticized several instances of alleged poor performance or corruption at the U.N. in her statement. She railed against the Human Rights Council (HRC), a U.N. organization the Obama administration joined, as "a rogue's gallery dominated by human rights violators who use it to ignore real abuses and instead attack democratic Israel relentlessly."

She promised to introduce legislation that would withhold U.S. contributions to the U.N. until reforms bear fruit. A previous version of her bill would withhold all funding from the HRC and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which distributes aid to Palestinian refugees.

Former chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) largely agreed with Ros-Lehtinen on her assessment of the problems at the U.N., but disagreed with her on the solutions.

"The flaws, shortcomings and outrages of the United Nations, both past and present, are numerous and sometimes flagrant," he said, citing the HRC, the Oil for Food scandal; sexual violence perpetrated by U.N. peacekeepers in Africa, and problems at the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). But Berman argued that withholding contributions would only lessen U.S. influence there and hasn't worked in the past.

Berman also contended that, though the U.N. still has significant problems, real progress is being made. He argued that many of the reforms called for in a 2005 high level panel report by Newt Gingrich and George Mitchell have been at least partially realized, including the establishment of a U.N. ethics office and a independent audit advisory committee to look into the OIOS.

"We have a much greater chance of success if we work inside the U.N. with like-minded nations to achieve the goals that I think both sides on this committee and in our Congress share," he said.

The United States is responsible for 22 percent of the U.N.'s annual operating budget, which comes to about $516 million in fiscal 2011. Washington is also responsible for 27 percent of the U.N.'s peacekeeping budget, which comes to about $2.18 billion this year. The appropriations bills put forth by Congress last year fully funded these obligations, but since it was never enacted, the issue could come up as early as March, when Congress will need to pass a new continuing resolution to keep the government operating.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee briefing was dominated by witnesses critical of the U.N., who called for tougher reform pressures from both Congress and the Obama administration. "The U.N. may have five official languages, but the bottom line speaks loudest," said the Heritage Foundation's Brett Schaefer, who called for withholding U.S. contributions.

Claudia Rossett, a journalist-in-residence at the right-leaning Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that the problems of corruption and mismanagement at the United Nations is the result of a lack of commitment to oversight and reform from top officials, including Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.

Next to speak at the hearing was Hillel Neuer, the director of an organization called U.N. Watch, which monitors U.N. action on human rights and Israel-related issues. He compared the HRC to "a jury that includes murderers and rapists, or a police force run in large part by suspected murderers and rapists who are determined to stymie investigation of their crimes," and said, "the council's machinery of fact-finding missions exists almost solely to attack Israel."

Neuer also drew attention to statements by the HRC Special Rapporteur  Richard Falk alleging that the 9/11 attacks were an inside job done with the knowledge of the U.S. government, comments Ambassador Susan Rice called "so noxious that it should finally be plain to all that he should no longer continue in his position."

Finally, the hearing turned to Peter Yeo, Vice President for Public Policy at the U.N. Foundation, a non-governmental organization that advocates for the U.N., who pointed out that the U.N. is working hand-in-hand with the United States in many of the world's most dangerous hot spots, including Afghanistan, Sudan, the Ivory Coast, Haiti, and also was deeply involved in the latest round of sanctions against Iran.

He also pointed out that polls show most Americans support funding the U.N. and American firms receive U.N contracts greater than the sum total of U.S. taxpayer contributions.

"The U.N. is not a perfect institution, but it serves a near-perfect purpose: to bolster American interests from Africa to the Western Hemisphere and to allow our nation to share the burdens of promoting international peace and stability," he said.

Yeo's arguments were bolstered by Mark Quarterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who said that the U.N. needs support because it feeds millions of starving people across the globe, deploys peacekeepers in countries where the United States is not able or interested in sending manpower, and is able to talk to regimes that Washington can't access.

"U.S. leadership and influence in the U.N. results in part from its status as the largest contributor to the organization. We must not return to the days of withholding funds as some have suggested. Withholding funds hurts the U.N. and doesn't advance U.S. interests," he said.

The Cable

Feltman: 'What happened in Tunisia strikes me as uniquely Tunisian'

A top State Department official in Tunis pledged full American support for the Tunisian drive to hold free elections on Wednesday, but also sought to distance the U.S. position on Tunisia from other mass protests in the region, such as the ongoing unrest in Egypt.

"What happened in Tunisia strikes me as uniquely Tunisian. That the events that took place here over the past few weeks derive from particularly Tunisian grievances, from Tunisian circumstances by the Tunisian people," Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman said at a press conference.

He called for free and fair elections in Tunisia and pledged both American and international support to set them up.

"The United States stands with the people of Tunisia. This is an exciting and unprecedented moment in Tunisia's history with great challenges but also great opportunities for the Tunisian people to chart their own course," he said.

Feltman allowed that there are some fundamental similarities with regard to human rights.

"The challenges that are faced here are in some cases shared. And we think governments everywhere should be finding ways to permit peaceful assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of the media in order to give people a say in how they are governed and to give them a stake in the future," he said.

Feltman's remarks echo Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's latest statement, which also calls on the Egyptian government to stop harassing protesters, but doesn't call on the Egyptian government to let them participate in a real election process.

"It is important that the government listens to the concerns of those demonstrating and respects rights of freedom of assembly and expression," she said. "Openness, transparency and political freedom are important tenets of stability. We urge the government and demonstrators to seek a peaceful way forward."

The Obama administration's support for Tunisians' right to self determination was on display during last night's State of the Union speech by President Obama, a speech in which he didn't mention Egypt at all.

"We saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: the United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people," said Obama.

The White House issued a statement from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs at about 11:30 PM, after the president's speech had concluded, expressing U.S. support of Egyptians right to peaceful assembly, but without any call for free and fair elections.

"The Egyptian government has an important opportunity to be responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people, and pursue political, economic and social reforms that can improve their lives and help Egypt prosper. The United States is committed to working with Egypt and the Egyptian people to advance these goals," the statement read.

During a Wednesday morning roundtable, State Department Policy Planning Director Anne Marie Slaughter explained the seeming disparity by noting that there was consistency in the sense that both stances include a respect for "universal values."

"That means we are strongly supportive of the Tunisians in the effort to achieve democracy, it also means we are not imposing our values on countries around the world," she said.

The New America Foundation's Steve Clemons said that the George W. Bush administration, despite that it outwardly advocated for democratic change in the Arab world, might have taken a similar stance as the Obama administration has on Egypt.

"The notion that we're somehow in the streets with every potential freedom movement would be a mistake in foreign policy," he said. "If this administration was out there calling for regime change in Egypt, I think that would be a huge mistake."