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Senators predict massive U.S. withdrawal from international organizations

Following the State Department’s announcement that it had cut off U.S. funding from UNESCO in response to its overwhelming vote in favor of accepting the Palestinian bid for full membership, senators from both parties predicted the United States would cut funding or even withdraw from several other international organizations the Palestinians seek to join. As ...

Following the State Department’s announcement that it had cut off U.S. funding from UNESCO in response to its overwhelming vote in favor of accepting the Palestinian bid for full membership, senators from both parties predicted the United States would cut funding or even withdraw from several other international organizations the Palestinians seek to join.

As The Cable reported last month, the Obama administration is required by existing U.S. law to cut off funding for any international organization that grants the Palestinians full membership. . Membership in UNESCO also grants the Palestinians membership in the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). The United States is not a member of UNIDO, but will be forced to stop contributing to WIPO.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The Palestinians could seek membership in more prominent international organizations, which could result in the United States defunding or even withdrawing from institutions such as the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The AP reported today that the Palestinian Authority was examining seeking membership in 16 more U.N. organizations.

While leading senators in both parties acknowledge that such an outcome would be negative for U.S. interests and influence, they have no intention of intervening to change the law. To the contrary, several top senators in both parties told The Cable they support the policy and will work to enforce it, despite the consequences.

"This could be catastrophic for the U.S.-U.N. relationship. This could be the tipping point," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops Subcommittee, told The Cable in an interview on Tuesday.

"There’s a lot of bipartisan support for cutting off funding to any political U.N. organization that would do this," he said. "What you are going to do is eventually lose congressional support for our participation in the United Nations. That’s what’s at risk here. That would be a great loss."

Graham said he believes it is in the U.S. interest to actively participate in these organizations. And yet, he plans to introduce a Senate resolution to formally withdraw U.S. membership in UNESCO — a more serious action than simply cutting off funds. He intends to do the same for any other international organizations the Palestinians succeed in joining.

Graham also said that Congress is poised to cut off U.S. funding for the Palestinian Authority (PA), which totaled $550 million in fiscal 2011, despite the fact that he still thinks financial support for the PA is a good idea.

"I don’t think that’s in our near-term or long-term interest, but that’s what’s going to happen, that’s where this thing is headed," Graham said.

But isn’t the United States just spiting itself by withdrawing from organizations in order to punish them for recognizing the Palestinians?

"Not really," Graham replied. "The world has to make a decision…. If the U.N. is going to be a body that buys into Palestinian statehood … then they suffer. It’s a decision they make."

Graham is seen as the most important GOP lawmaker in the fight to maintain foreign aid and U.S. involvement in international organizations, because of his subcommittee position and his genuine support for such issues. But when it comes to the issue of Palestinian recognition, the politics just don’t allow any room for compromise, he said.

"I’m the closest thing to a friend [U.N. supporters] have [in the GOP]," he said. "But if the Palestinians continue to go to more organizations, such as the World Health Organization, well — it’s just going to be politically impossible for a guy like me to support a body who’s playing a destructive game with the peace process."

Most of Graham’s GOP colleagues are not as conflicted as he is with the idea of U.S. withdrawal from U.N. organizations.

"They’ve made a decision and they will pay the consequences for their decision," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told The Cable, referring to UNESCO. "And that is that U.S. tax dollars are not going to be spent, if I have anything to do with it, on organizations that take the measures they’ve taken."

Will senior Senate Democrats intervene on behalf of the U.S. role in international organizations? Not likely. Democratic senators told The Cable they either support cutting funds to U.N. organizations that grant membership to the Palestinians, or at least don’t plan to do anything about it.

"We’ve put a very clear marker down in terms of what would be the result if there was an effort to prematurely declare a Palestinian state and [the administration] is implementing what they said they would do," said Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI). "It was the right thing to do and they should be implementing it."

Levin said that he hoped U.S. retaliatory action would slow down the Palestinian drive for recognition, and maintained that the United States would increase its influence by carrying through on its threats. The vote in UNESCO’s General Conference was 107 to 14 in favor of Palestinian membership, with 52 abstentions.

Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Ops subcommittee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) told The Cable today he was fine with the cutting off of funds to UNESCO.

"That’s what the law requires. It’s been there for 20 years and whether I support it or not, that’s the law," he said.

The senators don’t blame the Obama administration for what is happening at the United Nations, because the administration has consistently called for the Palestinians to stop their statehood bid there. But Hill staffers in both parties have complained that the administration doesn’t seem to have a plan to get out of the crisis or find a way around the law.

One Senate Republican staffer close to the issue told The Cable, "The administration is behaving just like a deer frozen in the headlights on this."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin