Inter Press Service
Despite the budget cutting and anti-U.N. frenzy that seized Republican lawmakers over the past year, U.S. foreign aid and support for multilateral institutions emerged in somewhat better shape than many observers had expected.
After negotiations by conferees from the Republican-led House of Representatives and the Democratic-led Senate, agreement was reached late this week on a diplomatic and foreign-aid package totalling 53.3 billion dollars for fiscal year 2012.
The amount was about 2.4 billion dollars less than what President Barack Obama's administration originally requested last February.
However, some 11.2 billion dollars of the total is earmarked for a special "Overseas Contingency Operations" (OCO) account for non- military expenses in Iraq, Afghanistan and other "front-line states". That total was substantially more than Obama's original request, with the result that other accounts were diminished.
"When you look at the final FY12 International Affairs Budget, it is a mixed bag," said Liz Schrayer, executive director of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, a bipartisan group that has lobbied for increased foreign assistance and support for the State Department.
"In the short term, we are pleased the agreement avoids the deep and disproportionate cuts to these programmes from earlier versions of the bill and welcome the bipartisan recognition of the importance of development and diplomacy," she noted.
"However, in the long run, the cuts to funding for non-war-related programmes is of grave concern given the challenges and turbulence in the world today."
Indeed, the package, which is part of a larger trillion-dollar omnibus appropriations bill, includes substantial cuts in funding for a number of multilateral agencies, including the U.N. and its peacekeeping budget.
Most bilateral aid accounts survived the budget process relatively intact either at or slightly below levels approved for 2011.
On the other hand, language included in the final appropriations package, which is expected to be approved by both houses by Saturday night, requires that a number of key aid recipients, most importantly, Egypt, Pakistan, and the Palestine Authority (PA), comply with strict conditions in order to collect the assistance.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, must certify that Pakistan is cooperating with U.S. counter-terrorism efforts before it can receive hundreds of millions of dollars in counter-insurgency assistance.
Similarly, Egypt cannot receive its annual 1.3 billion dollars in military aid and another 250 million in economic assistance until Clinton certifies that it is complying with the 1979 Camp David accords with Israel and that the transition from military to civilian rule is on course.
The conditions on aid to both countries could be waived by Clinton, however, if she finds it would serve U.S. national security interests.
The PA would also be denied several hundred million dollars in economic aid if it is recognised as a state by any U.N. agency besides UNESCO – whose governing board admitted Palestine as a member state last month – during the year.
By admitting Palestine, UNESCO immediately lost Washington's 80- million-dollar annual contribution – or 22 percent of its 2011 budget – as a result of laws enacted by Congress in the early 1990's that require Washington to cut aid to any U.N. agency that recognises Palestine as a state.
As approved by the conferees, the Senate version of the foreign aid appropriations bill – which was much closer to the administration's original request – generally prevailed over the far more draconian House version.
Among other provisions, the House version called for making all contributions to the U.N. and its specialised agencies voluntary, zeroed out contributions to the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) and the agency that supports Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), and mandated U.S. withdrawal from the Organisation of American States (OAS).
"With all the pressure for budget cuts and as much of a political push as there's been for cutting contributions to international organisations, it could have been a lot worse," said Don Kraus, president of Citizens for Global Solutions (CGS), a grassroots group that supports the U.N.
Still, he noted, contributions to the U.N. and other international organisations will fall about 170 million dollars short of the administration's request of 1.6 billion dollars.
"It's very conceivable that we will end up going into arrears in one or more of these agencies, and that diminishes U.S. leadership capacity and our credibility," he said, adding that a 130-million- dollar shortfall for U.N. peacekeeping operations "will make it difficult for the U.N. to pay troop-contribution nations and plan as effectively as it could".
Washington currently pays 27 percent of the budget for the world body's peacekeeping operations.
The administration wanted to increase U.S. contributions to multilateral agencies dealing with global warming and climate change by as much as 300 percent over 2011 levels, but they will instead remain at this year's level.
Thus, Obama had requested 144 million dollars for the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and 190 million dollars for the Strategic Climate Fund, but Congress appropriated only 90 million dollars and 50 million dollars, respectively.
On the other hand, the House version of the bill had recommended zeroing out accounts related to climate change and appropriating only 70 million dollars to the GEF.
On bilateral assistance, House proposals to cut support for family- planning programmes, international disaster and refugee assistance, food aid, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), by 25 percent or more were rejected by the conferees, who generally retained or slightly increased current funding levels for these programmes.
"On the one hand, we commend Senate and House negotiators for doing the best they could with the limited allocation they had to work with given the debt deal and the goals set by the appropriation (committee) chairs," said Ken Forsberg, a senior policy analyst at InterAction, a coalition representing nearly 200 U.S. humanitarian and development agencies.
These goals included in particular "maintaining strong funding levels for global health and child survival programmes, agriculture and food security, basic education, clean water, and international disaster and refugee assistance".
"But we should not lose sight of the fact that in an increasingly global world where U.S. leadership is vital, it's troubling that we are at best treading water with regard to our civilian international engagement."
He noted that, apart from the OCO account, the U.S. will spend only 42.1 billion dollars on its international affairs and foreign-aid programme.
By contrast, Congress this week approved 518 billion dollars for the Pentagon's 2012 core budget, which excludes some 115 billion dollars for war-related costs in Afghanistan alone, as well as another seven billion dollars to sustain the U.S. nuclear-weapons arsenal.
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org). His blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.