Incoming Chair of House Foreign Affairs Committee Wants to Isolate Enemies, Make U.N. Accountable

By Patrick Goodenough | December 9, 2010 | 5:43 AM EST

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, photographed here with Honduras’ then-interim President Roberto Micheletti on Monday, Oct. 5, 2009, has criticized the Obama administration on a range of foreign policy issues. (AP Photo)

( – The incoming Republican chairwoman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday identified U.S. funding of the United Nations as a target. The comments are likely to send a chill through supporters of the Obama administration’s policy of deeper engagement with the U.N.

“I plan on using U.S. contributions to international organizations as leverage to press for real reform of those organizations, such as the United Nations,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said after GOP lawmakers confirmed she will chair the committee in the next Congress.

The Florida Republican also has her sights set on the administration’s budgets for the State Department and foreign aid.

“There is much fat in these budgets, which makes some cuts obvious,” she said. “Others will be more difficult but necessary to improve the efficiency of U.S. efforts and accomplish more with less.

“We must shift our foreign aid focus from failed strategies rooted in an archaic post-WWII approach that, in some instances, perpetuates corrupt governments, to one that reflects current realities and challenges and empowers grassroots and civil society.”

Asked about Ros-Lehtinen’s comments on cutting the State Department and foreign aid budgets, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said the administration recognized that “as we go forward, budgets are going to be tighter and tighter,” citing more scrutiny and a “very difficult economic environment.”

Under a new policy, the State Department plans to assume more responsibility for U.S. programs in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, and Crowley said the administration believes “there are compelling reasons to support the civilian component of a balanced national security strategy.”

“A great deal of our funding is focused on frontline states such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq,” he said. “As we make the transition from a military-led strategy to a civilian-led strategy, having spent something like three quarters of a trillion dollars fighting two wars, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, we believe that we need to have proper civilian funding so that we can finish the job in both countries.”

“We think we have the right strategies,” Crowley added. “We look forward to engaging the new chairwoman of the committee, and we think we have a strong case to make.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who will chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the next Congress, hosts a members’ briefing on Iran with former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, on March 25, 2010. (Photo: Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans)


In her role as ranking minority member of the Foreign Affairs Committee since 2007, Ros-Lehtinen has been a vocal critic of repressive and corrupt regimes, with Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea and the Palestinian Authority frequent targets.

She is an outspoken supporter of Israel, a strong advocate of tough sanctions against Iran and opposes calls to end the embargo of communist-ruled Cuba. (Ros-Lehtinen was born in Havana in 1952 and moved with her family to the U.S. when Fidel Castro seized power seven years later.)

“My worldview is clear,” she said Wednesday. “Isolate and hold our enemies accountable, while supporting and strengthening our allies. I support strong sanctions and other penalties against those who aid violent extremists, brutalize their own people, and have time and time again rejected calls to behave as responsible nations. Rogue regimes never respond to anything less than hardball.”

Illustrating the scale of the change in tone expected from the Republican-controlled Congress when it comes to the U.N., Ros-Lehtinen earned a  “C” rating this year from an advocacy group that promotes U.S. engagement with and support for the world body. The Democrat she is replacing at the helm of the committee, Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), got an “A-plus.”

The 2010 congressional report card compiled by the political action committee of Citizens for Global Solutions (CGS) gave its lowest possible grade – an “F” – to Rep. Kay Granger (Tex.), the Republican in line to chair the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee responsible for spending on diplomacy and development.

Granger will replace Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who earned an “A” in the CGS evaluation.

The U.S. is by far the largest funder of the U.N., contributing 22 percent of its regular operating budget and more than 25 percent of the peacekeeping budget.

Human Rights Council ‘discredited’

President Obama came to office pledging a “new era of engagement” with the U.N., characterizing the policy as a significant turnaround from his predecessor’s approach.

Among the accomplishments highlighted by the administration since then are the payment of hundreds of millions of dollars in arrears accumulated between 2005 and 2008, and its decision to support and become a member of the U.N.’s Human Rights Council (HRC).

The U.N. Human Rights Council in session in Geneva. (U.N. Photo by Jess Hoffman)

The Bush administration steered clear of the HRC, citing the presence on the Geneva-based body of countries with poor rights records as well as its repeated targeting of Israel. Not only did it not stand for a council seat, it also symbolically withheld funding and eventually stopped participating in HRC sessions even in an observer capacity.

Obama reversed the policy last year, saying that while the HRC was flawed the U.S. could most effectively work to improve it from within.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. diplomats accredited to the U.N. have argued since then that U.S. membership has had a significant impact on the council’s workings and effectiveness.

Critics say the U.S. presence has done nothing to stop repressive governments and their allies from using the HRC to further their aims while seeking to challenge U.S. interests.

Ros-Lehtinen, who has described the HRC as an asylum run by the inmates, gave notice in her remarks Wednesday that the council was a priority for her, saying that she would “not hesitate to call for withdrawal of U.S. funds to failed entities like the discredited Human Rights Council if improvements are not made.”

In the outgoing Congress, Ros-Lehtinen authored a bill whose provisions included placing restrictions on U.S. participation in the HRC and withhold funding to the U.N. proportionate to the amount allocated to the council. (See earlier story)

Her U.N. Transparency, Accountability and Reform Act (H.R. 557) received the support of 106 co-sponsors, all Republicans.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow