Obama Finally Names Nominee for U.N. Reform Post, But He Has No U.N. or Diplomatic Experience

November 17, 2010 - 4:46 AM

Joseph Torsella

Joseph Torsella, the Obama administration’s nominee for the post of U.S. permanent representative to the United Nastions for U.N. management and reform. (Image: Joe Torsella for Senate campaign Web site)

(CNSNews.com) – Twenty-two months into his administration and almost a year since a previous effort failed, President Obama has nominated an envoy to the United Nations with a mandate focusing on reform.

The delay in putting in place a U.S. permanent representative for U.N. management and reform has drawn fire over the past year. Critics said the delay suggested the administration does not prioritize reform of the organization that gets more than one-fifth of its operating budget from the U.S.

The choice of nominee, a person whose resume includes no United Nations or diplomatic experience, may bring fresh criticism.

The White House announced Monday that, pending Senate approval, the post will go to Joseph Torsella, chairman of the Pennsylvania State Board of Education and a former president and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

Torsella narrowly lost a Pennsylvania Democratic primary for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in 2004, and he ran briefly in the early stages of the Democratic primary for the 2010 U.S. Senate race, before withdrawing.

Richard Grenell, who served as spokesman for four U.S. ambassadors to the U.N. during the Bush administration, said Tuesday that neither Obama nor current ambassador to the world body Susan Rice had “given the American people one shred of evidence to show they are interested in reforming the U.N.”

Susan Rice

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice speaks to reporters outside the Security Council on March 4, 2010. (UN Photo by Paulo Filgueiras)

“So it comes as no surprise that Mr. Torsella is nominated for the position two years into Susan Rice’s tenure with no experience dealing with the U.N. system,” he told CNSNews.

“Mr. Torsella will nevertheless enjoy New York City at taxpayers’ expense,” Grenell added.

Torsella and Rice are both former Rhodes scholars, and both were at Oxford University’s New College in 1986. According to Federal Election Commission data, Rice donated $2,000 to Torsella’s 2004 campaign and in March 2009 donated $2,400 to his Senate campaign.

Torsella’s nomination may raise questions about his short-lived campaign for his state’s Democratic nomination for the 2010 Senate race.

Torsella withdrew in May 2009, two weeks after veteran Republican Sen. Arlen Specter switched parties and immediately won Obama’s endorsement. Specter was then challenged in the Democratic primary by Rep. Joe Sestak, who defeated him. (Sestak lost the Nov. 2 election to Republican Pat Toomey.)

The Senate campaign was hit by controversy last summer over claims by Sestak that the White House tried to persuade him to pull out of the primary contest against Specter by offering him a job. The nomination now of Torsella for a key U.N. post could raise suspicions of similar deal-making in his case.

In September, a Philadelphia Daily News column reported on rumors that Torsella might be up for a U.N. position, and it predicted then that “some Republicans will claim a United Nations job is payback for Torsella dropping out of the Senate race last year.”

When he announced his withdrawal in May 2009, Torsella said he had decided to do so to avoid a primary campaign that would likely become “negative, personal, and more about Senator Specter’s past than our common future.”

“No one asked me to take this step, and I haven’t asked for or been offered anything to do it,” he said in a video message to supporters, whom he assured would get their contributions refunded. “Just like my decision to run in the first place, it simply feels to me and my family like the right thing to do.”

‘Consistently pressing for U.N. efficiency and accountability’

Obama’s original nomination of a representative for U.N. management and reform ran aground late last year after the nominee, former Goldman Sachs executive Jide Zeitlin, won Senate Foreign Relations Committee approval but then withdrew amid media reports of legal difficulties in business dealings in India.

The White House formally withdrew Zeitlin’s nomination in January, since when there has been no further announcement on the matter until Monday’s notice regarding Torsella. The U.S. Mission to the U.N. does have an acting representative for management and reform, a now-retired former ambassador to Sierra Leone, Joseph Melrose.

Last September – a full year after the original Zeitlin nomination was sent the Senate – the White House issued a statement highlighing the progress in Obama’s “new era of engagement” with the U.N.

Among its achievements, it said the administration “has worked to contain the growth of the U.N. budget and consistently pressed the issue of efficiency and accountability in our discussions with the U.N., pushing for a focus on results.”

In an op-ed at the time, former Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton took the administration to task for the delay in filling the management and reform post. “During the Clinton administration, one of the five ambassadorial positions in the U.S. mission was assigned exclusively to U.N. management and budget issues, an arrangement continued during the Bush administration,” he wrote.

“Under Obama, however, no one has been successfully nominated to fill that slot for 20 months and counting. This omission alone tells other U.N. members and the secretariat that good management, sound budgeting, and continuing reform are essentially irrelevant to this administration.”

With Republicans assuming the chairmanships of U.S. House committees in the next Congress, U.N. reform and accountability are likely to come under scrutiny again.

The current ranking Republicans on the Foreign Affairs Committee and its subcommittee dealing with the United Nations, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.) and Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.) respectively, have both been critics of U.N. reform efforts

The U.S. contributes 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular operating budget and 25 percent of the peacekeeping budget.

The next biggest contributor to the operating budget is Japan, at 12.5 percent. No other country comes close, including the other four permanent members of the Security Council – Britain 6.6, France 6.1, China 3.2 and Russia 1.6 percent.

According to the U.S. Mission, the management and reform (MR) division represents the U.S. on U.N. bodies responsible for administrative and budgetary matters.

“MR works diligently to enhance and strengthen the oversight capacity and functions of the United Nations and other oversight bodies within the UN system,” it says.

“MR coordinates the U.S. position on the United Nation’s multi-billion dollar budgets for the organization’s operations including special political missions and war crimes tribunals as well as peacekeeping operations. MR seeks to ensure United Nations programs and activities are efficient, effective and properly managed.”