Congress left one critical task undone when it adjourned: honoring our pledge to pay our United Nations arrearage. Almost immediately it came back to haunt us. When problems in the Gulf arose, that refusal hampered our ability to reenergize the coalition that had defeated Saddam Hussein.
And although the situation in the Gulf seems now to be better, it magnified the seriousness of Congress's failure to act. When other nations see us as a deadbeat country, unwilling to meet our financial obligations, our leadership position is increasingly undercut. (UN rules also mandate that any nation not paying its dues loses its right to vote in the General Assembly for two years.)
Earlier this year, President Clinton pledged that the US would soon start paying the money it owes the UN. This long-awaited commitment was gratefully received at the UN and was backed by an impressive list of US policymakers, including all living former secretaries of state from Democratic and Republican administrations.
But when the president's payoff plan reached Congress, Republicans dithered, tying repayment to future reforms at the UN. Though I would have preferred that we pay what we owe and simultaneously press for reforms, at least the initial conditions had a correlation to our UN dues repayment. By the end of the congressional session, however, the Republicans shifted and attached new, unrelated conditions in the form of restrictions on international family planning.
Funds for abortion?
House Republicans claimed, with no basis in fact, that US money given to international family planning is used for abortion. In fact, US law prevents this. The money helps the poor around the world gain access to birth control and, thereby, limit overpopulation.
When the president declared he was unwilling to accept the unreasonable Republican restrictions on international family planning aid, House Republicans retaliated by blocking funding for repayment of US arrears to the UN.
It has always been a guiding principle of American foreign policy that politics stops at the water's edge, that the country show the world a united front. But today, a few in Congress have put the politics of abortion ahead of vital US national security interests. This is unreasonable. It also gave and will continue to give Saddam leverage to disrupt the alliance that defeated him in the Gulf War.
When Congress reconvenes in January, the House and Senate must immediately provide for repayment of the money we owe. We have to separate domestic politics from America's national security. Doing that can turn the failure of 1997 into the success of 1998.
* Eliot L. Engel is a Democratic congressman from New York.