The price of peace

International | Before paying the UN, congressman suggests "accounting"

Issue: "Building a better boycott," Oct. 4, 1997

As President Clinton made his dash to the center in the months before the last election, he started espousing ideas-such as school uniforms and a moment of silence before class-that sounded vaguely Republican. Cynics insisted he'd return to his diehard Democratic ways as soon as the polling booths closed.

The cynics were wrong. Mr. Clinton is safely ensconced in the White House for a second term, but, as evidenced by his speech at the UN last week, he hasn't given up on one theme made famous by his Republican predecessor: the need for a New World Order.

It's a Republican theme that many in the GOP see as morally bankrupt, much like the UN itself. Conservatives have long complained that the world body restricts American sovereignty by dictating foreign policy, then expects U.S. taxpayers to foot the bill for its bloated bureaucracy and aggressive interventionist agenda. In recent years, that agenda has included sending troops to Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, and Haiti, among others. As expenses soared, Congress balked at paying the bill. In 1995, it passed a bill prohibiting the United States from paying more than 25 percent of the UN's total peacekeeping costs.

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But UN leaders, including Secretary-General Kofi Annan, continued to insist loudly that America should pay 30.9 percent of peacekeeping costs. According to the tab Mr. Annan has been keeping, the United States now owes the world body some $1.5 billion, and President Clinton last week promised to pay up, saying he wanted to "put the question of debts and dues behind us once and for all."

It's Congress that will have to write the check, however, and not everyone on Capitol Hill is so eager to balance the books. Although the budget agreement calls for the United States to pay about $900 million over three years-starting with a $100 million installment next year-the deal is far from done. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) has introduced an amendment to the State Department appropriations bill that would bar any payments on the alleged debt. The issue, he says, is one of fairness.

"We're saying let's send them no money until we have an accounting" of who owes what to whom, Mr. Bartlett insists. At issue is a GAO report which found that the UN actually owes the United States nearly $5 billion for its part in peacekeeping efforts that were never properly credited.

"It's a matter of properly crediting us for monies we spent on legitimate UN activities," Mr. Bartlett told WORLD. "Maybe $4.8 billion isn't the right number. But if it's not, then let's discover what the right number is before we start sending hundreds of millions more dollars."

Such a common-sense plea has largely been lost in the bitter debate over UN payments, however. Just days before President Clinton addressed the General Assembly, billionaire media mogul Ted Turner made the surprise announcement that he personally would donate $1 billion to the UN over the next 10 years. In his rambling, off-the-cuff speech, the CNN founder excoriated Congress for failing to pay its alleged back dues. Before deciding on the donation, he said he contemplated buying out the entire American debt to the UN, then suing Congress to recover his money.

Instead, over dinner with wife Jane Fonda, Mr. Turner reached the decision to make the single largest donation in history. (Ms. Fonda reportedly "burst into tears" of joy at the news.) Secretary of State Madeleine Albright could barely contain her own joy, gushing that Mr. Turner's donation somehow showed "how the American people feel about the value of the United Nations."

But critics like Rep. Bartlett insist that it is actually the U.S. government that is of indispensible value to the UN, not vice-versa. Between 1992 and 1995, American taxpayers shelled out far more financial support for UN operations than taxpayers in any other country: $1.6 billion for UN operations in Haiti, $2.2 billion in the former Yugoslavia, $600 million in Rwanda, and $2.2 billion in Somalia. Since then, the world body has reimbursed $79.4 million, and credited the United States for another $1.8 billion in "dues."

President Clinton acknowledges the accounting discrepancy, but says the United States does not deserve financial credit from the rest of the world when it is simply protecting its own interests overseas.

"I don't know of any place in the world where we're currently stationed with the UN out of selfish interests except possibly Haiti," Rep. Bartlett retorts. "We had an interest there in stopping the flood of refugees. But what are we getting out of Bosnia or Somalia? You couldn't get a sixth-grader to say that our troops are in Bosnia out of our own selfish interests. The Europeans have very definite interests there, but we don't."


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