Posts tagged ‘budget’

March 13, 2012

Between the United Nations and the F-35, I’ll take the UN

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finding a good nemesis. Not a true enemy, someone who you would enjoy watching crumble. Instead, I mean the sort of person who you know you will agree with absolutely nothing on, but are willing to have the debate with. Today I ran across Brett D. Schaefer, Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation. In that role, Mr. Schaefer is the chief critic of the United Nations for Heritage. You can see where the two of us have a problem.

The piece that I stumbled upon today is a National Review article drafted by Mr. Schaefer called “The Costly United Nations”. In sum, the article slams the UN for going over budget in the much-needed renovation of its New York City Headquarters, noting that the final cost will be about $2B, or around 4% over the original budget. As Mr. Schaefer writes:

When the renovation was first proposed, more than ten years ago, the General Accounting Office (as the Government Accountability Office was then called) estimated it should cost from $875 million to $1.2 billion. But the project kept growing — winding up at roughly twice that size under the U.N.’s official, currently approved CMP budget of $1.9 billion.

But even that inflated baseline may be a gross underestimate. Last week, New York architect Michael Adlerstein, the executive director of the U.N. renovation and a U.N. assistant secretary general, informed the U.S. and other U.N. member states that the cost overrun will be not $80 million, but $265 million. And even that new estimate is subject to upward revision, because it does not include certain foreseeable costs.

Schaefer goes on to praise Ambassador Joseph Torsella, the United States Representative for Management at Reform to the UN, for expressing “outrage” at the process. Now, before we continue, I want to say that I don’t have any problem with Ambassador Torsella. The man has a difficult job, with a dual nature. On the one hand, he needs to go to the United Nations and butt heads constantly with the Fifth Committee of the General Assembly and the Secretariat, the bodies that appropriate and spend the UN’s biannual budget, and honestly try to convince them to spend less in a time of global austerity. At the same time, he has been tasked with enacting a policy of the Obama Administration’s that I like to think of as the “Cruel to be Kind” Doctrine, to place public pressure on the UN in order to allow other projects to move forward that benefit the United States without domestic public opinion trampling over Administration priorities. It’s a tough balancing act, but Ambassador Torsella does so with distinction, managing to call out issues that the United Nations has without damning the institution as a whole as many in his position would.

In any case, Amb. Torsella has stated publicly on his Twitter account that the UN’s Capital Master Plan (CMP), which is running the show as far as renovation is concerned, to “determine how these additional costs occurred & take prompt measures to reduce them to complete the project w/o new assessments”. Which is all well and good; as I said, that’s Ambassador Torsella’s job. However, Schaefer insists that any new costs associated with the renovation, including those for security enhancements, be taken from the UN’s general budget. This concerns me, as Amb. Torsella has already won a 5% reduction in the UN’s 2012-2013 budget, only the second time in fifty years that the budget has been smaller than the previous yer. While the US does bear 22% of the budget, I’m wondering just where Schaefer believes the UN should divest its money to fund the HQ renovation. From peacekeeping missions that are already underfunded and understaffed? From its development missions, which quietly exceed expectations and belie the meme that the UN isn’t a force for good in the world?

That all being said, I must concede that Mr. Schaefer’s piece isn’t completely wrong. There are legitimate concerns with the acquisitions and prourement process at the United Nations. Papering over the need to enhance transparency and accountability at the UN hurts the organization as much as directly attacking it in my view. What does concern me, as part of a larger picture, is the obsession that organizations and individuals have with damning the UN for being a den of scum and villainy. Yes, the UN Headquarters renovation is running over budget. But as someone who’s spoken from the rostrum of the General Assembly, trust me, the building needed it. Asbestos in the walls, a weird water stain on the wall of the General Assembly, fire codes that haven’t been met since the 1960s, it’s a miracle the building hasn’t collapsed already.

So what we see here is that when a United Nations project goes 4% over budget, the Heritage Foundation pounces. Because it can, as the lobbying arm of the UN is minimal at best, no offence to the Better World Campaign, and thus lacks the adequate heft to pushback against Heritage’s narrative. The UN’s overspending, however, pales in comparison to that of the F-35 project. Despite the fact that the project has gone as much as 64% over its original budget over the last decade, or sixty percent more than the UN’s HQ upgrade, and that the thing is still in development, the Heritage Foundation is still backing its horse in this race. The  Foundation’s Dr. James Carafano went so far as to evoke the spirit of Col. John Boyd, the Air Force’s legendary fighter tactician and developer to push forward with the F-35 in an article that was not well received by some of Boyd’s compatriots. Heritage is also allowed to do this because they can; the defense lobby is one that nobody wants to tackle, and to come out against military spending is unpatriotic, the exact inverse of coming out in favor of the United Nations.

I bring up the F-35 mess because the United Nations is a national security imperative, whether Heritage wants to admit it or not. It may not have the same appeal as achieving tactical superiority in aerial combat, but strategic concerns and decisions are often less exciting that the tactics that go about in bringing them to bear. In short, the United Nations exists as a place where the vast myriad of US foreign affairs priorities collapse into a single space. Nowhere else can we have informal conversations with regimes that hate us and we’re none too fond of in return. Nowhere else can we meet with both China and Russia, our Great Power counterparts on the other end of the “free and open democracy” spectrum, and discuss matters of shared international concern and, more importantly, determine the red lines among ourselves for what each of the P-5 is willing to consider in terms of action. So the cost of remodeling the Headquarters is costing slightly more than originally planned for? Oh well. The building itself houses an institution that we need, and in the grand scheme of things the extra costs that will be assessed to the United States will be minimal and be part of a shared burden. In the choice between Turtle Bay and an airplane that has yet to be approved as operational, or one that suffocates pilots like the also over budget upgrades to the F-22, I’ll take the UN any day.

[UPDATE: In the four hours since I hit "publish", the Headquarters project over budget estimates have risen to 14.2% over, rather than 4, or a total of $265M. While this is frustrating, I stand by my original argument.]

February 15, 2012

Extended Version: On Budgets, UNESCO, and Overwhelming Pessimism

It has been a unbelievablely slow day at work today. How slow you ask? So slow I felt compelled to write about the FY 2013 Budget over at UN Dispatch. That slow. Granted, there were several extremely interesting points in the State Department’s budget request, which formed the backbone of the UN Dispatch piece, copied here:

Buried in the full State Department Congressional Justification [PDF], though, is a piece of information that’s actually a bit more interesting.  During a briefing on the FY13 Budget at the State Department on Monday, posted above, Deputy Secretary Thomas Nides was asked about page 713, which involves the funding of UNESCO. While FY 2012 had the line zeroed out, the FY 2013 request showed an increase to $79M, the same as in FY 2011. Secretary Nides replied:

Well, let’s do UNESCO first. As you know, the Congress has prohibited us for funding UNESCO this year. And as you know, the President has also articulated quite clearly that he would like a waiver to allow us to participate in UNESCO. We have put the money in the budget, realizing that we’re not going to be able to spend the money unless we get the waiver, and we have made it clear to the Congress we’d like a waiver. So we will work with them and work with our friends and colleagues on Capitol Hill in hopes that we can work an agreement out for us to fund. UNESCO does an enormously – a lot of enormously good work, and we’d like to make sure that we have a contribution commensurate with their work.

Secretary Nides’ statement gives me at least some cause for cheer. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Congress will pass a revocation of the law or even consider such a waiver in an election year.  The State Department’s budget is also likely to face renewed threats of cuts in the House of Representatives, and UNESCO’s funding will be a prime target. That being said, that the Obama Administration even calculated for providing dues to UNESCO shows that they haven’t given up completely on the body’s funding being restored.

That article was mostly reporting. As this is my own, personal blog, I feel a bit freer to throw around my opinion. My opinion being? Unless Congress flips in November, there’s no way this budget request comes through unscathed. Particularly the request for a waiver for UNESCO’s funding. And that is both a shame and a travesty. I wrote at length about last year’s budget fight, and how short-sighted Republicans have been when it comes to funding international affairs, those in the House in particular. None of which make any sense to me, several months later. Why wouldn’t we want to increase funding to peacekeeping, particularly as our own defense budget is slashed? When will Republican’s realize the value added in funding multilateral missions that require force? And I doubt that members of the House will appreciate the fact that the United Nations has passed a budget that actually calls for a reduction in spending for the first time in years. The time when Republicans were allowed to come out in favor of the UN, like former Senator Alan Simpson, seems to have passed, or at least has to be muzzled until retirement.

We’re likely in for a repeat of the events of the FY 12 fight for the next eight months until the election hits. Depending on the outcome of the election, the skirmishes over State’s budget, and the UNESCO waiver, will do one of the following. Should Obama win and the House remain under Speaker Boehner, they’ll likely continue apace, with the Senate acting as a vanguard against the House’s inevitable cuts. If the Democrats win enough seats to either flip the House or ease the Republican majority to a razor-thin margin, the calls for reducing Foggy Bottom’s budget will likely decrease, at least some. If the GOP manages to take control of the Senate, we would likely see an increase in pressure for cuts, as they join with the House in an assault on the re-elected Obama. Worst case scenario for State: the International budget gets trounced under a GOP White House and Congress.

As for UNESCO, I’m still pretty upset about that. There is zero chance that a waiver passes before November. I repeat: zero. Not in an election cycle in which candidates are falling over themselves to prove that they will be the most responsive to Israel’s security needs. While the Palestinian effort to gain acceptance into international bodies has certainly slowed, there’s always the chance of a resurgence, at which point more organizations could see a reduction in US funding. As that’s a chance I would hate to take, and I’m sure would leave the United States reeling as it realized just how much we depend on multilateral support, the responsible thing for Congress to do would be repeal the law. Then again, when was the last time Congress was responsible?

October 5, 2011

The GOP’s Mister Magoo Moment

First of all, I’d like to thank my friend Millie over at Fittingly for linking this blog in a post the other day. Also apropos are thanks to Capitol Hill Gang for linking as well, as it’s the first blog run by a complete stranger to actually read my work. Progress? I can guarantee that neither of you will see a spike in readership from your generosity but linked you are nonetheless.

In any case, after that last lengthy post, we now return to what is rapidly becoming our basic format on At Water’s Edge: an extended pop-culture metaphor serving as the framing mechanism for the IR-ish current events topic of choice. I may one day grow tired of writing these kinds of posts. But today is not that day. The comparison subject du jour is none other than The Nearsighted Mister Magoo. Why that man never invested in a solid pair of bifocals is beyond me. His stubbornness caused mishaps of the outlandish comedic variety, often drawing humor from the irony involved with Mister Magoo putting himself in grave danger unbeknownst to him but perfectly clear to the observing audience. The inability to see too much further than an inch past his face led me far too quickly to realize that he is the perfect symbol for Republican’s extremely nearsighted budget cutting mania, especially when it comes to the Foreign Aid budget.

In fact, ‘extremely nearsighted’ is putting it mildly and indeed gently when it comes to the overarching determination to shrink the size of the Federal government. I’m, if you could not tell, in favor of greater Federal power over the states, but I can understand the arguments that states’ rights people make in certain regards; when the country was founded, the Constitution was intended to truly bind the states into one country, while still preserving large swaths of independence. However, the world, the country, and even the Constitution, has evolved since those times, in ways that the established norms that were at the forefront of thought at the drafting of the Constitution could not predict nor would they be entirely applicable as a frame of reference in many of today’s issues. In areas like education, I can almost understand why some would advocate a reduction of government spending and an increase in the power of the states to determine their own course. When it comes to matters of national security and foreign affairs though, you really can’t make anything that resembles a Tenth Amendment argument. No debate is needed about the Constitutionality of the Federal government providing structures to advance foreign affairs. These are the issues that precipitated the very necessity of the Constitution; you need the Federal government to draw up the agenda and make the decisions necessary for the US to play on the world stage, in a way that fifty competing states just can’t.

Despite this need, the common defense provided for by the Preamble of the Constitution only extends as far as the armed services in the eyes of many. It’s ridiculously easy for GOP candidates and elected officials alike to take on straw-man Federal targets that the Republican Party thinks aren’t useful, or are over-bloated, or wasteful. These are all valid points in some areas, but not when it comes to the foreign policy mechanisms of the Federal government. The items in the budget under fire are some of the most important parts of the Federal government when it comes to keeping Americans safe, at home and abroad, at least on the same par as the deterrence that our armed forces represent. The United States is a poor target for states militarily due to the very basic fact that state-to-state, we still possess the hard power to take out almost any adversary in a blaze of blinding glory. There are maybe five states that could one day serve as an actual threat to the United States militarily, even less that would rate the level of existential threat. What you see instead of true sabre-rattling and actual military threats by states that disagree with or would wish to harm the United States is either support of various non-state actors who then act kinetically against the US and its allies or a slandering of the United States in the hopes that their views become a meme, part of the overarching narrative in global affairs today. The latter is what the US needs to get far better at preventing, because what’s the point of military deterrence when you lose every fight that isn’t on the battlefield? You can steamroll everyone’s army, but if nobody likes you enough to support any of your goals aside from at the barrel of a gun, what’s the point?

Arguments can be made that by sheer size of its economy that it makes it impossible for the US to be ignored, but the fact still remains that even trade alone does not make for partners whose goals align in lockstep with yours (see: the US and China). This need to influence other states without bombing or buying them makes particularly attractive Joseph Nye’s idea of soft power, a concept that the majority of Republican officials these days refuse to even acknowledge exists except to mock it. Strategically this makes no sense: When you can attract instead of deter, it makes things a lot simpler in terms of getting your way and is far, far cheaper in the long run.

As it stands, however, the Department of State is taking hits across the board, facing huge budget cuts as we (finally) begin discussing the FY 2012 budget.

As lawmakers scramble to trim the swelling national debt, both the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate have proposed slashing financing for the State Department and its related aid agencies at a time of desperate humanitarian crises and uncertain political developments. The proposals have raised the specter of deep cuts in food and medicine for Africa, in relief for disaster-affected places like Pakistan and Japan, in political and economic assistance for the new democracies of the Middle East, and even for the Peace Corps.

The financial crunch threatens to undermine a foreign policy described as “smart power” by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, one that emphasizes diplomacy and development as a complement to American military power. It also would begin to reverse the increase in foreign aid that President George W. Bush supported after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as part of an effort to combat the roots of extremism and anti-American sentiment, especially in the most troubled countries.

Given the relatively small foreign aid budget — it accounts for 1 percent of federal spending over all — the effect of the cuts could be disproportional.

The State Department already has scaled back plans to open more consulates in Iraq, for example. The spending trend has also constrained support for Tunisia and Egypt, where autocratic leaders were overthrown in popular uprisings. While many have called for giving aid to these countries on the scale of the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild European democracies after World War II, the administration has been able to propose only relatively modest investments and loans, and even those have stalled in Congress.

Emphasis on the last paragraph cannot be stressed enough. In a time of global upheaval, where the world is looking to the United States for more than just military support, we’re instead severing ties, making it all the more likely that incoming rulers in states affected by the Arab Spring and other revolutionary movements will be that much less influenced by the United States, let alone friendly.

And let’s bear in mind just how little cutting the budget of the State Department will affect the overall budget, deficits and national debt. Over on Duck of Minerva, they’ve come up with an impressive list of analogies, about how little these cuts will help the overall budget crisis. My favorite has to be “Cutting foreign aid to address the budget crisis is like getting your hair cut in an effort to lose weight.” Numerous polls have proven that the American public has no earthly idea how much the US spends on its foreign aid, in March calling for the foreign aid budget to be cut from 25% of the budget to 10% of the budget. The problem, as anyone who reads cares about this stuff enough to actually read this knows, is that the actual percentage is close to 1. 1%.  As Josh Lyman once put it “68% of respondents think we hand out too much in foreign aid, 59% think it should be cut”, once again proving that The West Wing is applicable in nearly any situation.

Also of concern is that the same spending cuts are also threatening the growth of the Foreign Service:

Among the largest House subcommittee reductions was a nearly 20 percent cut in the funds that pay for Foreign Service officers and the civilians who support them. In justifying this action, the subcommittee report said it eliminated funds sought for 184 new staff because since 2008, some 1,622 Foreign Service officers and 1,001 civilians had been hired above attrition.

Ramping down the Foreign Service is about the worst idea you could possibly have at this time. As we begin cuts in our military which will necessarily affect our global strategy, and many people on both sides of the aisle say are necessary, we have to have some way to leverage US power into actually policy decisions by other states that benefit us. The most cost-effective way that we can maintain American prestige is to hire more Foreign Service Officers as the number of soldiers decrease, a strategy that Secretary Clinton has followed over the past several years, as can be seen by the amount of growth since 2008. To slow that growth is a tremendous mistake right now.

Now, I said “majority of Republicans” earlier, because there are most certainly vocal advocates of the benefits of smart power, including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Secretary Gates spoke together with Secretary Clinton numerous times on the idea of smart power, to Congress and to the public, in ways that you would think would carry more weight than coming from State alone. Here you have the leader of the Department of Defense begging and pleading that the military be given more civilian support in keeping the peace, and the Congress saying ‘no’. In fact, with the proposed cuts, it seems to be more of a ‘hell no’. Shouted through a megaphone. The fact that the all-star combo of Clinton/Gates was ignored by Congress on advocating smart power says a lot to me about how little I want the Legislative Branch determining foreign policy. Granted, given their power of the purse some involvement is inevitable. But to use their platform to dash foreign aid against the rocks by strangling it to death, to mix metaphors, is atrocious.

The State Department is not alone in the crosshairs. USAID also took a hit in the same House subcommittee, going from $1.5B requested to $900M, which could seriously undermine the strategy laid out in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. What’s more, that perennial foe of the Republican party, the United Nations, is a prime target this Congress. The 1980s saw the US withdrawing from UNESCO due to objections of the Reagan Administration over the agenda. The US went into arrears in the 1990s as the United States refused to pay the entirety of its dues. Only through a push by Ted Turner the United Nations Foundation’s Better World Campaign and the results of a bipartisan effort were we able to pay off our debt and become members in good standing again. Already, those efforts are under threat, as we are currently $736M in debt to the UN. Thanks, House of Representatives.

Well, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtenin is at it again. Earlier this year, after being handed the gavel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Congresswoman convened hearings in January titled “The United Nations: Urgent Problems that Need Congressional Action” and in April called “Reforming the United Nations: The Future of U.S. Policy” with Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice testifying. The latest salvo, H.R. 2829, the United Nations Transparency, Accountability, and Reform Act of 2011, was introduced in late August to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  Despite the bill’s title, filled with words that few people could disagree with, the bill would put unrealistic pressure on the Secretariat to produce changes that would be more detrimental than actually improving the UN. The GOP has long called for a ‘voluntary’ model for paying for the UN, in essence cherry-picking what it does and does not want to support and pay for, else the US would reduce its payments by half. In addition, the bill, if passed, would end U.S. funding for any UN agency that does not sign a special “transparency certification” with the U.S. Comptroller General. And it would cut U.S. funding to any UN entity tasked with implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Can you imagine how embarrassing it would be to have the US’ vote in the General Assembly withdrawn due to lack of payment? In addition, lawmakers seem to be missing out on the fact that the United Nations is the best foreign policy investment we could ever hope to make. In the January testimony, Better World Campaign Executive Director Peter Yeo stated that for every dollar of US investment in the UN, it delivers $1.50 in investment in American firms and companies. The same could most certainly not be said in the case of military spending in Iraq. Also, according to Ambassador Susan Rice in an interview on PBS in 2009, “if the US was to act on its own – unilaterally – and deploys its own forces in many of these countries, for every dollar the US would spend, the UN can accomplish the mission for twelve cents”.  So to fix the budget, the GOP would have us spend eight times as much on foreign intervention, or cut off all overseas missions. Sounds right to me. Thankfully, there’s been plenty of pushback against this bill, which never stands a chance of passage through the US Senate or not being vetoed by President Obama. That the GOP can score points this way though is highly disturbing.

Despite all of my arguments, it does stand to reason that it is hard to explain to American citizens why their money is going “over there” to build schools and roads when our infrastructure is crumbling, disaster relief when people are still struggling from last year’s oil spill in the Gulf, and food when we have children starving in our inner cities. The simplest of answers is “because we can”; that despite all of the economic hardships our country has had in the past three years, we are still the richest and most powerful state on Earth, and to turn our backs on the rest of the world would be callous beyond reason. The less altruistic view is the one that I ascribe to, that this foreign aid helps keep the world safer and America strong abroad, which is a necessity in a world that has shrunk down as we become more connected. To cut the knees out from under the foreign policy mechanisms now is amazingly short-sighted; this is a time where we need more friends abroad, not fewer, and withdrawing from the initiatives of the Foreign Service and the United Nations will undoubted prove detrimental in the long-run. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration floated the idea of combining the budgets of the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom, and DHS into a “unified security budget”. It’s an idea that’s worth discussing, but unfortunately, the GOP can’t see past their own face, or rather their next election, where the idea of cutting defense in favor of agricultural support seems downright un-American. The Mr. Magoo cartoons made light of the issue of myopia, but when it comes to the United States, it’s no laughing matter.

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