The Obama administration on Wednesday stepped up criticism of calls by some members of Congress to withhold or slash U.S. funding of the United Nations, saying such moves were "backward" and would seriously undermine America's role as a world leader.
Republican-led efforts in Congress could force the U.S. to withhold half of its annual contribution to the world body. A senior State Department official said the administration's engagement with the United Nations and promise to pay its dues had bolstered once-languishing U.S. influence at the world body that should not be squandered.
"We oppose the backwards calls we again are hearing to withhold U.S. dues, given the impact doing so would have on U.S. influence and leadership across the UN system," said Esther Brimmer, the assistant secretary of state for international organizations.
Brimmer did not specify the target of her criticism, but it was clearly directed at a bill introduced in the House last week by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., with 52 co-sponsors. The measure would block U.S. funds for any United Nations entity that supports giving Palestine an elevated status at the U.N., and ban U.S. contributions to the U.N. Human Rights Council and an anti-racism conference seen as a platform for anti-Israel rhetoric.
Ros-Lehtinen, the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has long been a critic of the United Nations. Her legislation would also withhold a portion of U.S. dues to the international body if it does not change its funding system so that dues are paid on a voluntary rather than assessed basis. Her proposal would withhold 50 percent of the U.S. nonvoluntary regular budget contributions if, after two years, 80 percent of the U.N. regular budget is not funded on a voluntary rather than assessed basis.
"The administration is entitled to its opinion, but it's not entitled to its own facts," she said in a statement. "Our bill's purpose is to leverage our contributions to reform the U.N. and make it work again, not to attack the U.N. Our bill is about strengthening U.S. global leadership, not reducing it."
Ros-Lehtinen added: "It's disappointing that the administration continues to aim its fire at the U.N.'s critics instead of at the U.N.'s problems."
Brimmer dismissed as "alarmist" concerns that the U.N. is working against U.S. interests. While she allowed that the U.N. needs reform, she maintained that could be better achieved with more and not less U.S. involvement. She said U.S. participation in numerous U.N. agencies had helped to reduce unfair criticism of Israel and gave powerful voice to efforts to condemn human rights abusers.
"We reject arguments made by some that would cede global leadership to those who would not act in our interest, or abandon the real, tangible gains that have come with enhanced U.S. multilateral engagement," Brimmer told an audience at the U.S. Institute for Peace. "We reject also the alarmist suggestions that the U.N. is somehow running roughshod over U.S. interests. Aside from being factually wrong, they ignore the many ways that U.S. multilateral diplomacy advances our national security and supports the security of our allies, partners and friends."
U.S. membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council, in particular, has brought at least some credibility back to the much-maligned body that the Bush administration boycotted, Brimmer argued. Withdrawing from it, as some lawmakers want, would be disastrous.
"Right now, the one thing we could do to reverse those gains would be to walk away and hand leadership back to those who would rather the Human Rights Council not be a serious human rights body," she said. "Yet that is exactly what some are now proposing we do: Pull down the flag and go home. Leave the Human Rights Council to the human rights abusers. Announce in a full voice that until HRC membership achieves perfection, the United States will treat the entire organization with contempt.
"And for good measure, broaden these self-inflicted injuries by withholding U.S. funding across the UN system," Brimmer said.
In the 2010 budget year the U.S. provided $7.7 billion to the U.N. for its regular budget, peacekeeping and other programs, up from $6.1 billion the previous year.
The State Department spoke out against the legislation after it was introduced, but Brimmer's comments significantly raised the rhetoric of the opposition ahead of the annual U.N. General Assembly session set to begin in New York later this month.