WASHINGTON – U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan was a happy man not long ago when the United States cut a deal with the United Nations to repay its back dues.
"We can now look forward to a normal and constructive relationship with the United States administration," Annan said.
Not so fast.
Once again, many U.S. lawmakers are fighting mad about the United Nations, this time over last week's vote that cost the United States its seat on the U.N. Human Rights Commission.
The House is to vote Thursday on a State Department authorization bill that provides $582 million to partially repay the U.N. debt. But what once seemed like a sure thing is now in doubt.
"I think there's going to be a severe reaction in the Congress," said Rep. Benjamin Gilman, R-N.Y.
Moves were afoot Tuesday in Congress to allow the $582 million to be paid but to condition the final payment of $244 million on the United States rejoining the rights commission.
What galls people is not only losing the seat but that the ouster came the same day Sudan and Libya, two members of the State Department's list of terrorist nations, were elected to the panel.
By coincidence, the day after the commission vote, President Bush devoted a portion of a speech to Sudan, calling it a "disaster area for all human rights."
So as one of 54 commission members, Sudan will be sitting in judgment on international human rights issues — the same country that, according to Bush, often bombs hospitals, schools, churches and international relief stations in pursuit of victory in its long-running civil war.
To add insult to injury, the United States also was voted off the U.N.'s International Narcotics Control Board last week. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the absence of a U.S. voice on the panel will only hurt countries trying to cope with the problem of illicit drugs.
As for the rights commission vote, 43 countries had promised to support the U.S. re-election bid but only 29 kept their word. The outcome was no doubt cheered by China and Cuba, perennial U.S. targets at the commission's annual spring meetings.
Last week's developments again highlighted the pros and cons of an activist human rights policy.
If the United States sides with a dictator for geostrategic reasons, the dictator is grateful but his subjects may turn against America, according to one theory. Others say if the dictator is called to account by Washington, he may look for ways to fight back.
That could account for some of last week's anti-U.S. votes.
"We need to distinguish between the commission and the individual nations that voted against us," says Elliott Abrams, a former assistant secretary for human rights. "We should try to find out who they are. There are ways."
But Secretary of State Colin Powell says he's not interested in trying to break the U.N.'s "secret code" of how countries voted.
As for the overall vote, Powell says, "A number of our friends who assumed we had a lock used their votes someplace else, and they are as astonished as we are about what happened."
Harold Koh, who served as human rights chief under President Clinton, argued in Tuesday's Washington Post against Congress punishing the United Nations by withholding funds.
That, he says, would only encourage further retaliation against the United States, including the scuttling of U.S. initiatives.
Koh says the United States should show good will by attempting to play a constructive role at upcoming multilateral conferences on AIDS, racism and democracy.
"Even after last week's debacle," he says, "the world still wants American leadership on human rights. The question is: Do we still have the courage and vision to provide it?"