As of this writing the death toll in Asia from the killer tsunami exceeds 50,000. Almost immediately, the United States put together an aid package of $15 million, with assurances that more will be on the way. We also dispatched emergency relief teams and Navy patrols both to help with the aftermath and to assess what more we can do. "We also have to see this not just as a one-time thing," Colin Powell said. America is in the reconstruction effort "for the long haul."
This commitment, however, was not generous enough for Jan Egeland, the Norwegian bureaucrat who heads up relief efforts for the United Nations. "It is beyond me why are we so stingy, really," Egeland told reporters, according to Bill Sammon of the Washington Times. (We'll let the "we" pass unmolested.)
American and European politicians, Egeland complained, "believe that they are really burdening the taxpayers too much, and the taxpayers want to give less. It's not true. They want to give more."
Egeland quickly backtracked when he realized his comments were only slightly less impolitic than slapping Colin Powell with a flounder. Still, his candor is revealing.
First, let's be fair. Egeland's right to be frustrated. His job is to help untold numbers of poor people in a terrible situation where no amount of aid or effort could ever make them whole. How much money does it take to compensate a father whose child was snatched away by an angry sea on a clear and sunny day?
But it is one thing to say the victims need more help, and another thing entirely to suggest that Sri Lankans and Indonesians are suffering from the stinginess of Americans or U.S. tax policy.
Let's review the obvious: The United Nations is an odious institution. Whenever I make this commonsense observation, I am invariably rebutted with questions like, "What about the starving people it feeds?" or "What about the peacekeeping?"
OK, what about them?
The United States supplies more than one-fifth of the United Nations' total budget (and 57 percent, 33 percent and 27 percent of the budgets for the World Food Program, the Refugee Agency, and Department of Peacekeeping Operations, respectively). We've been the United Nations' biggest donor every year since 1945. Taxpayers reluctantly agree to such largess because we're told of the good works the United Nations does. And yet, whenever there's a catastrophe, Uncle Sam is asked to dig deep into his pocket for more money.
This is the global equivalent of when the Interior Department closes down the Washington Monument whenever it faces budget cuts of a few percentage points. Nobody wants the Monument to be closed down, so the bureaucrats make it the department's most vulnerable expenditure.
Nobody objects when the United Nations helps victims of natural disasters, so U.N. defenders always use disaster relief and peacekeeping as their chief tool for fundraising. The problem is that the United Nations is not an impartial philanthropic organization. It is a political institution where a broad coalition of nations hope to curtail the power and influence of the United States. France uses the organization to leverage its relatively meager power by rallying African and Arab nations against us. Kofi Annan uses his megaphone to decry the moral and legal legitimacy of American foreign policy. Its Human Rights Committee is festooned with torture states, but it seems capable of issuing only condemnations inconvenient to the United States. And we foot the bill.
This is the Catch-22 of the United Nations. Politically, it's often reprehensible and inimical to American interests. But we're never asked to pay for that stuff. This comes out of the general budget. It's only when human beings are suffering in vast numbers that we're shamed for being "stingy" - because the United Nations understands how to exploit America's decency. If only we could be shaken down for more money to pay the light bill in the General Assembly when they play whack-a-mole with the United States.
The larger picture Mr. Egeland fails to appreciate is that America's wealth and prosperity - partly sustained by low taxes - is a greater bulwark against human suffering than the United Nations ever has been or likely will be. America guarantees global stability by keeping the sea lanes open, by preventing North Korea from invading South Korea and China from seizing Taiwan. We did it by preventing Saddam from keeping Kuwait. We ignored the United Nations and intervened to stop genocide in Yugoslavia, and we have 150,000 troops in Iraq working to create a democracy - while the United Nations is still too scared of terrorists, and too anti-American, to help.
Meanwhile, American citizens, partly thanks to those stingy low taxes, send some $34 billion in private aid around the world every year. That's 10 times the United Nations total budget. America's Christian ministries, private foundations and agencies all do far more in direct charity and aid than the United Nations. But bureaucrats - some who've grown fat on oil-for-food money - measure stinginess in terms of support to the bureaucracy, not to the constituency the bureaucracy was intended to help.
It is our prosperity that drives global development, our courage and goodwill that keeps the peace, and our example that shines the path to liberty, not "blue papers" from Turtle Bay.
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