Welcome to the latest Magical Mystery Tour of American funding for theUnited Nations. Today’s featured mystery is, how to explain the missing $2.8 billion?
Thursday morning, President Barack Obama’s ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, testified before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, on “United Nations Budget and Policy.” It was a long and lively session, full of questions about the U.N.’s despot-friendly, anti-American, anti-Semitic and financially opaque culture. But let us focus on the money, which was the core reason for the hearing. The U.S. is by far the biggest donor to the U.N., bankrolling 22% of the U.N.’s core budget, and roughly one-quarter of its far larger and murkier system-wide spending (estimated at somewhere upward of $25 billion). Rice was arguing the Obama line: That while the U.N. may be “far from perfect,” the only ways of improving it depend on an uninterrupted flow of billions in U.S. funding. Some members of congress, including Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), were asking if it wouldn’t be better to try to change the U.N.’s entitlement mentality toward those U.S. tax dollars, and pursue a policy of “reform first, pay later.”
Looming behind all this is the question of how much money everyone is actually talking about. A simple question? Not a chance. This is the labyrinthine U.N., meshing with the mega-bureaucracy of hope-and-change America. Where these two meet and engage, details of the landscape tend to get lost in a miasma of cash.
But Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) made a valiant attempt to extract some genuine financial specifics from the witness. He asked Ambassador Rice if it’s correct that the U.S. yearly contribution to the U.N. is $6.3 billion. As it happens, that was not a random number. Last June, the Obama administration sent a required report to Congress on U.S. funding for the U.N., covering fiscal year 2009. This report listed total U.S. contributions to the U.N., dispensed not only via the State Department, but via 18 other U.S. departments and agencies, ranging from the Department of Agriculture, to NASA, to the Peace Corps, Postal Service and Treasury. The grand total came to a hefty $6.3 billion. Or, to be more precise, $6,347,415,000.
That is the number that Rohrabacher was asking Rice about — the grand total of U.S. annual largesse to the UN. Since fiscal 2009, with the UN’s soaring budgets and emergency appeals, that number has quite likely gotten even bigger than when Obama’s budget office produced its most recent, 2009 figure. The U.N.’s secretary-general,Ban Ki-Moon, is now talking about “austerity” in the form of 3% cuts in the moving target of some of the U.N.’s escalating spending, but genuine austerity has yet to materialize.
Rice did not have an instant answer for Rohrabacher. She shuffled through her papers and gave a series of partial figures. Rohrabacher asked, “What does that all add up to?” Rice, apparently stalled briefly on the arithmetic, said “I can get you that in a second.” After some more back-and-forth on U.S. policy, Rohrabacher returned to the matter of money, this time asking: “How much has the budget of the United Nations grown over the past 10 years?”
The answer to that question would have to take into account, as theHeritage Foundation’s Brett Schaefer testified to the same House committee in January, that the UN’s regular budget over the past decade has more than doubled, the peacekeeping budget has more than tripled, and U.S. contributions to these, plus a host of other U.N. activities, have grown accordingly. But Rice did not address the question. Instead, she produced a figure for what she said the administration is now requesting for the United Nations.
The number she gave the House committee was $3.539 billion. That’s a lot of money, or at least so it might appear to many of the U.S. taxpayers who earn it and then shell it out to the government. But it is well short of the $6.3 billion that the administration itself reported giving to the U.N. in fiscal 2009. It’s $2.808 billion less, to be exact.
What happened? Did the Obama administration lop $2.8 billion or more off its annual contributions to the UN, and simply forget to tell anybody? Did the UN not notice? Surely this should be news!
Or maybe not. Rice’s lowball $3.539 figure represents specific budget requests for just two U.S. accounts: the Contributions for International Peacekeeping Activities, and the Contributions to International Organizations account (which, as she noted, also includes funding for outfits such as the Organization of American States). This cipher of $3.5 billion is what the news reports picked up on, and it is now circulating as the sum of the Obama administration’s current plans for U.N. funding. That’s just wrong, As last year’s U.N. funding report lays out, the administration dispenses money to the U.N. through a far wider array of spigots. For instance, in fiscal 2009, the State Department dispensed $4.1 billion to the UN; that’s listed separately from the $1.7 billion dispensed via USAID. That in turn was distinct from the $245 million dispensed by the Department of Agriculture, or the $44 million dispensed by the Department of Labor, or the $54 million from the Department of Energy, or the $132 million from Health and Human Services. The list goes on. And though the lucre comes from different sectors of the administration, it’s all U.S. tax money. It all flows into the U.N. A couple of billion here, a couple of hundred million there, and pretty soon — as happened in fiscal 2009 — you’re talking about $6.3 billion. Or these days, possibly more?
Rohrabacher made one last-ditch attempt to pin down the real numbers, as time ran out on the committee clock, asking Rice: “And for all U.N. activities, we’re talking about $3.5 [billion]?
“That’s what I’ve just said,” replied Rice, thus magicking into the debate a subtotal oddly short of the 2009 genuine $6.3 billion that Rohrabacher had initially inquired about.
What’s the real total of U.S. tax dollars the administration is now planning to pour into the U.N.? It’s a very good bet that it’s a figure much larger than the $3.539 that Rice mentioned in her testimony. Culling the real total out of the current budget fracas is something theOffice of Management and Budget should eventually get around to. But Rice never mentioned that. To get the grand total, or even an educated guess, it is apparently not enough that lawmakers ask America’s envoy to the U.N. for the information, though her own legation’s budget includes funding for such responsibilities as keeping an eye on U.N. getting and spending.
If members of Congress want full disclosure, it looks like they either need to summon someone from the trenches of the budget office, and spell out in big letters that they want the real numbers. Or they’ll have to toil through testimony from whatever agglomeration of executive branch departments are now proposing to pour more money into Turtle Bay. These are serious matters, given the UN’s record of spending dollars not only on blankets and bed nets, but on sky-high senior staff salaries, corruption-riddled procurement contracts, racist conferences on “racism,” projects such as the rankly pro-terrorist, anti-Israel Goldstone report, and agency governing boards populated by the likes of Cuba, China and Iran. If Congress is seeking accountability for what the UN does with the American money it gets, one of the big questions that deserves an honest answer is, how much U.S. money is the U.N. actually getting?
Ms. Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.
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