Here comes the next chapter in perverse U.S. priorities at the United Nations. While the federal government has been pleading that it is too broke to provide White House tours or pay air-traffic controllers, the State Department is itching to fork over more than $233 million to a United Nations agency in Paris — despite U.S. laws preventing them from doing so.
The agency in question — the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO — lost its U.S. funding in 2011 after its member states voted overwhelmingly — over U.S. objections — to make UNESCO the first U.N. body to admit the Palestinian Authority to full membership. That vote triggered two longstanding U.S. laws that forbid government funding to any part of the U.N. that tries to confer statehood on the Palestinians before they keep their promises and negotiate a genuine peace with Israel.
For UNESCO, that vote translated into a loss of almost $80 million per year, cutting into such delights as the business-class air travel widely favored by the well-paid staff. U.S. dues totaled 22 percent of the agency’s core budget, with millions in off-budget funding thrown in. This was UNESCO’s choice, and there the matter should have ended. The 2011 cutoff was apparently a salutary lesson to the rest of the U.N., which has so far refrained from following UNESCO’s lead.
That lesson is now in jeopardy. UNESCO may not like American support for Israel, or care if the Palestinians break their Oslo promises. But UNESCO loves American money. So for more than a year now, UNESCO’s director general, Irina Bokova, has been campaigning not for UNESCO’s member states to reverse their admission of the Palestinians, but for Americans to scrap their own laws and resume feeding UNESCO’s maw.
Last spring, Bokova assigned a full-time UNESCO staffer, former U.S. congressional aide George Papagiannis, to help shake down Washington. Officially, Papagiannis is based at UNESCO’s liaison office at U.N. headquarters in New York. But Papagiannis spends much of his time in Washington, fount of the taxpayer dollars UNESCO desires.
In a recent phone interview, he described his job as “external relations.” Bokova herself has visited Washington at least five times since the 2011 funding cutoff, meeting with members of Congress, administration officials, and assorted pro-UNESCO nonprofits and advocacy groups. Her most recent visit came just last week, and included stops at the State Department and, according to Papagiannis, the White House.
In Washington, UNESCO’s biggest backer has been the Obama administration itself. Last year, the State Department penciled into its budget $79 million for UNESCO, with a footnote that the administration would “work with Congress” to persuade U.S. legislators to waive the relevant laws and release the money. Congress refused.
This year, growing more ambitious, the State Department not only has requested $77.8 million for UNESCO in fiscal 2014, but in oblique language proposes to pay UNESCO an additional $156 million in “arrears” — meaning a grand total for UNESCO of $233.8 million this year. The administration says it is seeking congressional support for the authority to waive the laws that currently forbid UNESCO funding based on the Palestinian issue.