Enough UN reform to satisfy Congress?

US House wants to cut US funding to world body, but Ambassador Bolton cautions lawmakers against the move.

When John Bolton, US ambassador to the United Nations, returned to Congress for the first time since his bruising confirmation hearings, he was greeted with glowing praise: "I just want you to know that you're a rock star around here," said conservative Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Mr. Bolton's high standing in the US House is one reason President Bush wanted to send him to the United Nations in the first place (despite the fact that the Senate did not confirm the appointment). The president's hope: That Bolton, by pushing hard for UN accountability and other reforms, will manage to provoke needed change at the UN while heading off congressional attacks on the UN, including efforts to hold back UN dues.

The strategy in play

Though Mr. Bush and those lawmakers both seek reform at the UN, the president prefers not to have his hands tied by Congress as Bolton sets to work. The House has voted - not just once but twice this year - to cut US funding of the UN in half if a list of 39 reforms is not completed in two years.

The administration's strategy seemed to work in the House International Relations Committee on Wednesday. Bolton made it clear that he does not support congressional attempts to dictate US funding of the UN, fearing it could be detrimental to advancing US foreign policy.

In so doing, Bolton appeared to succeed in both quelling concerns about US relations with the UN and in deflating momentum for the House funding measure.

Bolton alleviates concern

In addition to heading off congressional strictures on the president's foreign policy, Bolton reassured congressional leaders that UN reform is proceeding largely in line with US goals even though a UN summit on institutional reform earlier this month produced watered-down results.

Despite widespread concerns that the summit document will end up in the same file as all others have in more than a decade of reform attempts, the US and like-minded countries are going to keep pushing for change, Bolton says.

Bolton and other officials acknowledge that the next three months will be critical in determining the outlook for - and pace of - change.

The US, for example, wants a new, more accountable human rights council to replace the UN's widely discredited Human Rights Commission by the time it meets next spring.

But achieving that would mean agreement on the council's size and eligibility for membership - issues UN member countries could not agree on in negotiations for the recent summit.

UN members "have to have finalized agreement on the design of [a new council] by December" if it is to be up and ready to replace the existing human rights commission by next spring, says Mark Malloch Brown, chief of staff to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Mr. Malloch Brown, who also testified at Wednesday's hearing, said in an interview that three factors will keep up momentum for UN reform:

• The US and "like-minded countries" want the UN to change in order to meet the development and security challenges of the 21st century;

• Scandals, such as the UN-administered oil-for-food program for Iraq;

• And Secretary General Annan himself.

"The secretary general's pressure is a critical component in this," says Malloch Brown. "His legacy is very much bound up in fixing the institutional weaknesses that were exposed by oil-for-food."

Annan was faulted for administrative shortcomings by a series of reports from an investigative committee headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. At the same time, after a year of inquiry, the independent committee did not find any evidence of wrongdoing by Annan.

Some members of Congress, spearheaded by Sen. Norm Coleman (R) of Minnesota, have called for Annan's resignation over the oil-for-food scandal.

But the administration does not support that drive. And no support for Annan's departure was voiced Wednesday either. "Kofi Annan is a friend and ally of the US. I hope the irresponsible [calls] for his resignation have come to an end," said Rep. Tom Lantos (D) of California.

Two key areas where the US will continue to press for more from the UN are arriving at a universal definition of terrorism, and management reform, according to Bolton. On terrorism, he said negotiations for the recent summit document got bogged down in discussions of when "national liberation movements" might resort to legitimate violence.

And he said that a "long list of countries" from the developing world - sometimes including US partners - continue to stand in the way of US goals for the UN, such as barring a seat on the human rights council to rights violators.

"There are times when you feel like you're in a bubble [in New York] debating issues from the '70s and before," Bolton said.

In response, Representative Lantos said it is time for the US to get tough with countries, such as Egypt and Pakistan that are beneficiaries of the US but that turn around and "stab us in the back" on broader foreign-policy goals. In response to such tactics, he said, "There will be a growing emphasis on quid pro quo in US foreign policy."

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