Victory Or Sellout?

Madeleine Albright seemed like a good foil. She's a woman--the first ever to be U.S. secretary of State. And she's pro-choice on abortion. Surely, feminists and family-planning activists would listen when she explained the Faustian trade-offs necessary to make policy in Washington. They might understand, in particular, that in order to get Republican agreement to pay massive U.S. arrears at the United Nations--and preserve American influence abroad--the Clinton administration would have to agree to restrictions on international family-planning programs. So Albright volunteered to be the official flak catcher when the White House cut a budget deal last week. But rather than empathize, many activists felt betrayed. "This is outrageous," said Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "When push came to shove, Albright was too willing to bargain away the well-being of other women not as fortunate as she."

This is the rough-and-tumble world of Washington budget wrangling. Congressional critics of the United Nations have long held U.S. dues hostage--particularly since Republicans won control of the House in 1994. Critics denounced the previous U.N. secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and claimed that Washington was relinquishing sovereignty to foreigners. They also wanted the world body to be more efficiently run. (Which, in some measure, it is: the United Nations says it has reduced its budget by about 15 percent since 1994.) Yet even as Washington was mean on dues, it asked the United Nations to follow its lead on a wide array of issues, from Iraq sanctions to Kosovo bombing. The credibility gap was growing untenable.

The United States had fallen so far in arrears, in fact, that it was about to lose its vote in the U.N. General Assembly. That was the last thing President Clinton wanted, particularly in the last year of his presidency, when he's hoping to burnish his legacy as a statesman. Already, Congress had embarrassed Clinton with its recent vote against the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. So congressional anti-abortion activists, led by Republican Christopher Smith of New Jersey, had plenty of leverage going into this year's budget season. "We didn't want the killing of unborn children to be part of our funding package," says Representative Smith.

The deal is complex. Washington is slated to pay $926 million--a large portion of what it owes to the United Nations--over three years. Some of that money will not be paid, however, unless Washington also negotiates a reduction in its U.N. dues and peacekeeping obligations. (According to the U.N. Charter, the United States should pay 25 percent of the regular U.N. budget and 31 percent of peacekeeping costs, but it demands reductions to 20 percent and 25 percent respectively.) That hard sell will be up to U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who lobbied hard for the U.N. dues deal.

In the same budget plan, $385 million will be allocated to family-planning programs abroad this fiscal year. If Clinton wants to give some of that money to organizations that perform abortions or lobby for abortion rights, he'll have to use what is called a waiver. In that case, the family-planning budget will be penalized $12.5 million. (That money would then be transferred to child-survival programs.) Moreover, even if the waiver is used, no more than $15 million can go to overseas organizations that perform abortions or lobby for them.

Got it? The Clinton team says the concessions are largely symbolic. But pro-choice activists point out that Congress has already cut grants to overseas family-planning programs by a third since 1995, when they reached a peak of $582 million. An additional cut of $12.5 million, they estimate, will deny effective contraception to some 450,000 people. Many family-planning specialists also worry that the measure will blacklist overseas groups that support abortion rights, and will actually increase abortions, both legal and illegal, as more women face unwanted pregnancies.

American politicians are more attuned to the impact on next year's presidential campaign. Vice President Al Gore edged away from Clinton and declared that he opposes "bargaining away any critical policy aspect of a woman's right to choose." According to a senior Gore aide, the vice president "expressed extremely strong reservations about accepting the Republican demands" during the negotiations. The issue could serve Gore two ways: by bolstering his support among pro-choice groups, and also by moving himself out of Clinton's shadow. Republican front runner George W. Bush, by contrast, supports restrictions on foreign organizations that promote free choice. Last week, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed its final budget bill, both the White House and its Republican foes claimed victory. But when the fight renews next year, in the midst of a fierce campaign, everyone will need a flak jacket.

Victory Or Sellout? | News