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September 13, 2005

5 Ideas for the President's UN Speech
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

(with apologies to the White House staff -- I know this memo is kinda late.  Let's just blame FEMA and go forward.)

1.  Thank you.  Yes, I know this is obvious.  But follow it up with something about how we feel part of the world community, how the basic humanity that unites us is bigger than the politics that divide us, and how grateful we are for the institutional preparedness of outfits like the UN and NATO.  Acknowledge how they're helping us.  A significant strand of the foreign coverage of Katrina wants to see us reaching out, wants to see us getting back on our feet.  I'm not asking for new pledges of cooperation on issues other countries care about, or even an apology for past insensitivity, or efforts to starve various international rapid reaction capabilities.  Even the tiniest gesture would be well-received.  What we don't need is the sort of line Karen Hughes was peddling in Washington last week:  the problem is that "there are a lot of things being said about us around the world that aren't true."  No, the problem is that there are a lot of things about our response to Katrina that shouldn't be true.

2.  On fighting terrorism:  G-SAVE, GWOT, G-willikers.  It couldn't hurt to offer the international community (never mind us here at home) a comprehensive explanation of what exactly we think this struggle is, how we intend to fight it over the long term, and what we are asking others to do.  Again, I'm not, just this once, trying to score an ideological point here; rather, there's genuine confusion even among those who want to support the Administration.  And one thing the neo-cons and I agree on:  anytime you're not defining the playing field, someone else is doing it for you.  The inimitable Mark Danner wrote this past Sunday that the American public has "lost the narrative" of this conflict; the international community has too.  Or they're making up their own narratives, some of which are not so useful (eg Russia and Chechnya).

3. On Poverty:  OK, so we just watered the UN's fight on poverty down to invisibility.  This Administration still has a window to do something really big and interesting by re-seizing the high ground on trade.  Some analysts think that, after the German elections, we may see a new push in Europe to eliminate agricultural subsidies and seize the high ground on letting developing economies export their way to prosperity.  As things stand now, we will get flattened by such a move.  So we should do it first, and let the Europeans be the ones who have to respond slowly.  Besides, it's the right thing to do -- it would generate cash flows to sub-Saharan Africa many times what we do in aid.  And it sound so small-government, free-enterprise.

4.  On UN Reform:  Here's where I get in trouble with all our resident UN gurus.  But there's a fundamental sense in which all the urgency of the UN reform debate is a bit specious.  The UN can only be as efficient, or as strong, or as stringent, as its member states will allow it.  That doesn't excuse corruption in the Secretariat.  And it's true that the US is in no position to point fingers.  But imagine any President getting up and saying "we pledge to pay our bills on time -- that means on the UN's time, not ours; and we pledge to put any US citizens caught misbehaving as peacekepers or other UN employees OR CONTRACTORS on trial, not yank them home or plead dipomatic immunity.  We will stop our nickel-and-diming in the budgetary process, and in exchange we will institute zero tolerance for even the appearance of fraud or mismanagement.  We challenge the rest of you to do the same."

5.  On Iraq:  I can't help it.  The rest of the world wants to know what the plan is as badly as Americans do.  Whatever the truth of the strange brouhaha surrounding UN printing of the draft Iraqi constitution, we're clearly out of sync again.

And a bonus #6: 

6.  The Millennium Development Goals.  Great idea, pure of heart, lousy framing, execution full of acronyms, dubious statistics, and numbing rhetoric.  Unclear, unfortunately, that they're making much of a difference on the ground -- which means, I'm sorry, they're not a success as an organizing tool.  Mr. President, since John Bolton tried to edit them out of existence anyway, couldn't you please task the brilliant Michael Gerson with reformulating them in language and constructs that speak to normal people, who don't go in for the five- and ten-year plan approach?  It's true that the international aid bureaucracy wouldn't thank you for it.  But the people who are supposed to be benefiting from them just might.

Score along at home:  if I go zero for five, be really afraid.  If, with half-credit and generous interpretations, I go 3 for 5, my cynic-o-meter is about right.  If I go 5 for 5 or, God forbid, 6 for 5, my mind has been taken over, alien-movie-like, by David Frum.


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Suzanne, do you mind responding to something, honestly?

This is something NOBODY brings up, and it does flabbergast me to see it ignored.

Namely, we will ALWAYS be late with UN dues, due to the simple fact that the UN fiscal year and the US fical year don't match at all. Namely, the UN expects dues on 1 Jan of any calendar year, while we don't get to paying any of a year's bills til October, since the fiscal year begins the 1st of October prior to the enumerated year.

So, just what do you mean?

Er, not Suzanne. Heather. Sorry, transposing names there...*blush*

That's exactly what I mean. Nobody's national budget year matches the UN's -- yet some countries do manage to pay on time, pay in installments, etc, to avoid provoking mini-crises at the UN. It's hardly an insurmountable problem. If any Administration (especially one whose party also controls Congress) wanted to make the gesture of fixing this, it could. This has been discussed at least since I got into the international institution oversight business -- 1990 -- but nobody, Republican or Democrat, actually cares enough about the ugly guts of running an organization to do the heavy lifting to fix it.

Heather: Because, by the very nature of the beast, that ties Congress's hands. Congress won't do that.

We see similar problems when the President tries to commit to spending X dollars over a future timeframe; Congress revolts.

In short, even if Bush did say that, I'm not sure it's a promise he could keep. He'd be writing checks (figuratively and literally) he could not expect to cash, and anyone listening who had a clue about how the appropriations process works would realize that.

I am trying to be clear about the extent to which "chronic US dues payment tardiness" goes beyond paying in Sept to paying much later than that. Could either of you inform me about that?

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