WASHINGTON—Whether it's confronting genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, getting Syrian troops out of Lebanon or pressuring Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions, President Bush finds himself increasingly turning to the United Nations for help.
Yet the world body, marred by scandals and taxed by political calamities and development needs worldwide and under attack from some conservatives in the United States, faces what may be the most serious crisis in its history.
Bush is pressing for changes at the U.N., which turns 60 on June 26. Some members of his own party want to go further, however, and withhold U.S. contributions unless the United Nations undertakes changes dictated by Congress.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's chief of staff, Mark Malloch Brown, pleaded with Congress last week not to cut U.S. funding, saying needed reforms have begun.
"For me, the United Nations is not oversized, over-resourced or under supervised by its member states," Brown told the House International Relations Committee. "Rather, from where I sit, the United Nations is currently stretched too thin, in both material and human resources, to be able do the job that people and governments around the world want it to do."
Conflicting views of the United Nations have provided the background for the intense fight over Bush's nomination of hawkish arms control official John Bolton to be America's U.N. ambassador.
The nominee's mostly Republican supporters say the tough-talking Bolton is precisely what the world body needs after scandals in the oil-for-food program in Iraq and sexual misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers.
Opponents say Bolton's confrontational style—he has suggested that the U.N. is irrelevant—will make him ineffective and damage America's international stature.
Senate debate on Bolton began Wednesday, with Democrats threatening to stall a vote this week unless the administration turns over documents they've been seeking on Bolton's use of intelligence information.
A key procedural vote, in which Democrats need 41 votes to extend debate, is expected Thursday.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the leading Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, charged in a letter Wednesday that Bolton may have mishandled sensitive data by sharing with a subordinate the fact that the subordinate's name appeared in a highly classified National Security Agency report. Rockefeller's letter did not detail the nature of the report or say why Bolton's subordinate was named.
Committee chairman Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said there's no indication that Bolton did anything improper in requesting on 10 occasions the names of U.S. citizens mentioned in NSA reports.
If confirmed, Bolton would be U.N. ambassador at a time that the United States might turn to the United Nations for help on such problems as the spread of nuclear weapons.
For example, the world body could play a key role in administration strategy to stop Iran's nuclear program if diplomatic talks break down and Washington tries to seek U.N. Security Council sanctions. Washington suspects Tehran has a secret weapons program. Tehran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
Bush has used the United Nations to deal with real and potential crises in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere when the U.S. military has been tied down in Iraq and American diplomatic leverage has been limited.
"They realize they've got to call on the U.N. at times when nobody else can fix the problem," said William Luers, the president of The U.N. Association of the U.S.A., which works to build support for the world body.
In Congress, there is outrage at the United Nations over the oil-for-food scandal, in which then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein allegedly manipulated a U.N. humanitarian program based on Iraqi oil sales to extract millions in kickbacks and help sympathetic politicians in Europe.
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., the chairman of a Senate committee investigating the scandal, has called on Annan to resign.
Congress might one-up Bush in demanding changes in the U.N. bureaucracy, Luers said. "Congress may race to make new decisions on (restricting) funding" or other limitations on the United Nations "that might pre-empt an executive branch strategy," he said.
A bill being drawn up by the House International Relations Committee would cut half of the annual U.S. assessed contribution to the U.N. budget, beginning in fiscal year 2006, unless Bush certifies that the world body has undertaken 37 reforms.
The United States is by far the largest U.N. contributor. The funds would be redirected to beef up U.N. oversight, bolster human rights and humanitarian accounts, or aid U.N. organizations, such as UNICEF, that Congress considers successful.
A senior State Department official said the Bush administration hasn't taken a formal position on the bill, but believes that U.S. assessments—about 22 percent of the regular U.N. budget—are obligations that must be met.
On Capitol Hill, the oil-for-food scandal and reports of sexual abuse, including exploitation of minors, by U.N. peacekeepers in Congo, "have all contributed to turn up the volume on doubts about the U.N. that were already there," said the senior official, who requested anonymity to speak more openly.
"This administration thinks (working with) the U.N. is a necessary part of acting on the world stage," but opposes giving it powers to act on its own, the official said.
But while the United States is pushing structural changes at the world body, "I'm not sure we're grappling directly with the big question of what kind of U.N. do we want in the 21st century," he said.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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