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.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.