While President Obama was just beginning to make headway against the often cynical approach to human rights at the United Nations, and had begun to repair US-UN relations and the image of the United States globally, Republicans were warming up for another chance to bully the world. With a shift in power, arrogant and often ignorant resurgent cold warriors and neo-isolationists could make 2011 a risky year for the UN, where the US is still the dominant voice.
The Republican right, now fortified by a dose of Tea Party patriotism, has a list of targets: international agreements that might dare to constrain the US, money spent on some UN development programs, foreign aid generally and soft diplomacy. The enemies are foreigners who criticize American policies and power. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican from Miami who will chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says she’s ready to play “hardball.”
"I plan on using U.S. contributions to international organizations as leverage to press for real reform of those organizations, such as the United Nations,” Ros-Lehtinen, a relentless foe of her native Cuba, among other nations, said in a statement when she was chosen committee chair on December 8. She added that she will “not hesitate to call for withdrawal of U.S. funds to failed entities like the discredited Human Rights Council if improvements are not made.”
She also promised to cut the “fat” from foreign aid. A recent WorldPublicOpinion.org poll from the University of Maryland showed that Americans still wildly overestimate the percentage of the federal budget spent on international assistance. Respondents to the poll said that they thought, on average, that aid accounted for about a quarter of the budget; in reality it is barely 1 percent.
In the Senate, a narrower Democratic majority could make it even more difficult to round up the votes necessary for action on foreign policy steps Republicans oppose.
Threats to the UN, or even American membership in it, are all too familiar in Washington, but no less disturbing, given the recent history of Republican-inspired assaults. Some actions were farcical, others more damaging.
In the 1990s, Congress outlawed the naming of Unesco World Heritage Sites in the US without its approval on the absurd theory that Unesco threatened national sovereignty. In 2001, American contributions to the UN Population Fund were eliminated by a campaign originating in the House that falsely accused the fund of abetting forced abortions in China. At least 200 million women are now thought to be seeking but not finding contraception as world population rises to 7 billion next year—almost all the growth in the poorest countries where maternal deaths rates are high. American contributions were restored by Obama, but another campaign by anti-abortion activists against the Population Fund and progressive, secular nongovernmental agencies supported by USAID cannot be ruled out.
UN officials are often targeted by critics before the facts are in. In 2004, then Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota called in the Wall Street Journal for the resignation of Secretary-General Kofi Annan because of his handling of corruption surrounding the oil-for-food program in Iraq during a period of UN sanctions. The campaign to oust Annan took a physical toll on him, little mitigated when an investigation led by Paul Volcker found that the billions Saddam Hussein reaped from illegal deals were largely bribes from private corporations (some American) or government trading agencies such as the Australian Wheat Board. A former French ambassador to the UN and India’s foreign minister were implicated as recipients of Iraqi financial favors, but not Annan. The US, as a Security Council member with the power to stop the undercover deals, had been turning a blind eye to much of what was going on in order to keep its Iraq sanctions policy in place.