A confederacy of dunces

The GOP-led Congress has pushed the United States to the brink of losing its vote in the United Nations.

Published November 12, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

As the century shuffles to an ignominious end, Congress is doing its best to bring the Apocalypse in on schedule, determined to set off the next millennium with a bang in orbit rather than a wimp in the White House.

With varying degrees of collusion or incompetence from the Clinton administration, it has told the world that it wants to abrogate the anti-ballistic missile treaty, just as last month it refused to ratify the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. The United States had worked hard to persuade countries like India and Pakistan to sign the treaty, which bans all future nuclear tests while allowing existing nuclear states like the United States to hold onto their weapons.

And Congress' response, when the rest of the world asks the United States to do as it asks others, is to give the finger to the United Nations, one of the instruments that may have saved us from World War III by maintaining channels with Moscow even at times when the Cold War looked as if it were about to go hot.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently declared brassily, "We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see farther into the future."

Well, if she looks just six weeks ahead, she should able to see the United States lose its vote in the United Nations, because Congress and Clinton between them have stalled on paying more than $1.5 billion in back dues. Ironically, while the United States would lose its vote in the General Assembly, it would keep its veto in the Security Council.

In an unconscious echo of Bulworth's campaign mantra, the one that drove the befuddled pol into sanity, President Clinton gave an empty reassurance to the U.N. General Assembly in September that the check would be forthcoming. "Today we look ahead to the new millennium," he said. To help us over this brink, "the United Nations is indispensable," he continued. "It is precisely because we are committed to the U.N. that we have worked hard to support the effective management of this body. But the United States also has the responsibility to equip the U.N. with the resources it needs to be effective."

Polls show that the United Nations is actually more popular than Congress, and that most voters think that Washington should pay its debts. So can we expect a resolute presidential battle with Congress to get the U.N. dues paid? Hardly. Clinton has been promising to get the dues arrears paid since he was elected, and his administration repeated that pledge when it single-handedly sacked former Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. However, Clinton has shown no more signs of standing up to the GOP in Congress on this than he has on other foreign-policy issues.

Meanwhile, the Congress of the world's only hyperpower, which can already out-nuke and outshoot the other 187 members of the United Nations put together, decided that it will give billions more to the Pentagon than the Pentagon asked for, but it still can't pony up the cost equivalent of one measly stealth bomber for the organization that the United States founded and has hosted for the past half century. For years, the United States has been promising to pay back its dues but withholding the check as a way to squeeze concessions from the United Nations.

Other U.N. members are growing tired of American promises consistently being tied to new sets of demands. In 1996, then-U.N. Ambassador Albright oversaw the dismissal of the previous secretary general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The only cogent reason she ever gave was that Congress would not pay its back dues until the Egyptian was gone.

Unkind souls linked her part in Boutros-Ghali's departure to Jesse Helms' benign acquiescence in her arrival at the State Department. While it may have been part of a deal the Clinton administration cut with Helms to ensure Albright's confirmation as head of State, the promised check to celebrate the arrival of American nominee Kofi Annan as secretary general never came.

Helms agreed to a deal over U.N. payments which gave him what he wanted, knowing full well that the deal would be scuppered by his GOP soulmates in the House. To the rest of the world, it looked as if the GOP members would rather thumb their noses at the world than see Clinton claim credit for anything.

The kindest critics of American foreign policy say this gridlock is just a passing phase -- the rare conjunction of a lame-duck administration with serious attention-deficit disorder and a Congress whose ignorance is only matched by its xenophobia.

While the administration shares some blame, there is little doubt that Congress deserves the donkey's share of it. It's because of these Jurassic Capitol Hill ideologues that Richard Holbrooke, United States ambassador to the United Nations, finally in office after a year's holdup by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, may be wondering why he bothered. When Holbrooke first accepted the somewhat thankless job, it was widely rumored that he did so in firm faith of a Gore victory that would enable him to emulate Madeleine Albright's leap from the United Nations on the East River to the State Department at Foggy Bottom.

Now, he's probably wishing that he had a back channel to the other campaigns, since he faces a year of mudslinging from most of the other member states with no certainty of ever taking over at State. "It's tough representing America 'round here," he was heard complaining in one closed-door U.N. meeting, as even his best friends rounded on the contrast between U.S. demands for U.N. action and its failure to pay its debt to the United Nations.

So why should anyone care whether the United States ever pays up? Well, there are two reasons. Firstly, the United Nations is a place where U.S. foreign policy is weighed in the balance. After all, it's useful to know what foreigners actually think about your foreign policy if you want it to be effective. But the United Nations is also the organization that the United States uses when it wants to act with a "global mandate," as it has in Iraq, East Timor and Kosovo. Because of the U.S. veto power, the United Nations can only carry out operations that the United States approves of. Yet Washington has still not paid a cent toward missions it has sometimes proposed and often pushed hard for.

No matter how imperfect, Congress muddles through on domestic policy because of a sort of Newtonian law of politics -- to every lobby there is a roughly equal and opposite anti-lobby. But the new Republican worldview toward the United Nations and other global government institutions is alarming.

Almost half of the 1994 GOP freshman class had never had a passport, and they attach their names to resolutions ranging from the dumb to the crazily xenophobic. Their epitaph may well be: "With little knowledge of the world abroad, these men viewed events in terms of their own xenophobic preoccupation with internal security and domestic concerns. It is possible that the conceptions of these men might occasionally achieve a rough approximation to reality and their judgments a similar preoccupation to fairness, but it is not likely."

This is in fact what George Kennan said about Stalin's advisors at Yalta, but it's an apt description of Jesse Helms and his minions at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Short of a constitutional amendment making I.Q. tests mandatory for legislators, can anything be done?

There are only a few weeks to authorize the U.N. appropriations before the United States is stripped of its vote at the United Nations. The White House could plead to join Bosnia, Cambodia and the Congo as a country too poor to pay because of circumstances such as lack of control of part of its territory. In fact the White House could argue with some justice that it had lost control of the territory of foreign relations that used to be a presidential prerogative.

It may even find a slush fund to pay the bare amount necessary, some $350 million. Or the White House could risk a fight with idiot-occupied territory on Capitol Hill and carve a place in history other than the carpet of the Oval Office for the lame-duck presidency. President Clinton had better do something decisive soon. The indispensable country should be able to hear better as well as "see farther" than other nations, unless it wants to leave a vacuous hole at the center of a dangerous globe.

By Ian Williams

Ian Williams' book "Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776" is due in late August 2005 from Nation Books. His last book was "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Own Past."

MORE FROM Ian Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton United Nations