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"I Am Still Daddy": U.S. to UNESCO, But Is the World Listening?

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PALESTINE STATEHOOD BID UNESCO
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The buck stops here.

When Harry Truman had that sign on his desk, he meant that he took ultimate responsibility for every decision.

In 2011 the slogan has turned into "the buck stops now." The United States needs to show the world that it is still Daddy. It still controls the purse strings. No more allowance for naughty children who won't listen to it.

Hence it's cutting its funding to UNESCO after that agency voted to accept the Palestinian bid for full membership.

The writing on the wall

That means its $60 million payment to UNESCO this November is not happening. The U.S. contributes about 22 percent of the agency's funding. The U.S. said funds must be denied to any organization granting the Palestine Liberation Organization "the same standing as member states."

That's fine except when the vote for UNESCO admission goes 107 in favour including India and China, 14 against and 52 abstentions, the writing is on the wall. Four of those 14 no votes came from tiny Pacific islands. The European Union failed to come up with a common position -- France voted for membership, Germany against while the U.K. abstained.

And the U.S. decision is not really about principle. The law it's hiding behind is from the early 1990s and the world has changed considerably since then. Mahmoud Abbas is now Washington's chosen man in the West Bank. The truth is Obama cannot afford to stick his neck out for the Palestinians and piss off the Israeli lobby including groups like AIPAC, not while he's heading into a tough election. The "yes, we can" president just cannot.

A stormy relationship

America's relationship with world bodies like the UN and UNESCO has always been fractious. A section of the American political establishment thinks of the UN and UNESCO as a hothouse for airing anti-American bias often on the American taxpayer's dime. Not to mention the indignity of the possibility of American troops serving under UN control. But at the core of it is the discomfiture of feeling that an American vote could count the same as a vote from Togo.

America's pique is not surprising. And Obama probably had no easy way out. But the real message it was sending UNESCO, Palestine and the 107 countries that voted for the UNESCO membership was the alacrity with which it took that decision.

But for America this could also be a decision that could end up ricocheting on itself.

Goodbye honest broker

The "honest broker" status that the U.S. has clung on to in the Middle East gets another battering. To be honest, the honest broker has really meant an occasional finger wagging at Israel when it gets a little too aggressive with its settlement expansion. This could be the first sign of an emerging new Palestinian strategy writes Daniel Levy in Foreign Policy. They are prioritizing symbolism over sanctions. "That is probably an easier ask --and intriguingly it probably creates more problems for the U.S. (as Israel's unquestioning protector-in-chief) than for Israel itself," writes Levy. In the middle of the ferment of an Arab spring, the Palestinian leadership can't just depend on the snail-like crawl of the Quartet peace talks. Israel will weather the domestic fallout and as long as it has America's coat tails it won't feel any financial pinch. And Levy quips, "And what are the implications for the peace process...? Only joking, there is no peace process."

Today UNESCO, tomorrow IAEA

UNESCO might need the U.S. more than the U.S. needs UNESCO. But if the U.S. clings to the letter of the law, it might have to cut off funding to other international agencies much more important to its standing in the world. The Los Angeles Times points out the U.S. would be in big trouble if it had to withdraw from the International Atomic Energy Agency which monitors among other things Iran's nuclear program or the U.N. World Intellectual Property Organization which helps protect U.S. patents around the world. As former Sen. Tim Wirth pointed out this is about sapping America's soft power capacity.

What about those Afghan women?

The average American struggling with home foreclosure and job loss probably couldn't give a damn about bureaucrats' salaries in Paris. The UNESCO sounds like just another pit into which hard-earned tax payer money is being drained at a time of soaring unemployment and foreclosed homes. But the fact is it does play a role in America's foreign policy and strategic interest. For example, it helps fund the Tsunami early warning system. It teaches Afghan women, children and police officers to read -- just the kind of nation building the U.S. needs to do so it can get out of Afghanistan. Ironically, it's also about protecting Israel, says a blog on CNN.com.

The irony of the decision to cut funding is that UNESCO is one of the few United Nations groups where the U.S. finds a sympathetic ear on issues related to Israel. UNESCO is actively working with America to promote tolerance and is working to deepen understanding of the Holocaust in countries where people don't even believe it existed.

A nation-state in reverse

The Palestinians say the membership drive is about protecting historical sites such as the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. (They didn't mention more contested sites such at the Temple Mount/ Haram Ash-Sharif). Anyway that's balderdash. This is really about the fact that its campaign to become a full-fledged member of the U.N. will be vetoed by the United States.

The Palestinians are basically building a nation-state in reverse. First they become members of international bodies. Then they use that membership card to claim statehood.

To paraphrase Descartes, they are saying, I belong, therefore I am.

All of this might be moot anyway says Karl Vick in the blog Global Spin. The UNESCO membership becomes effective only when a legislature signs and ratifies it. That needs a sitting legislature. "That's something Palestine has lacked since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, dividing Palestinian territories between that coastal enclave and the West Bank, where Abbas' Fatah party rules."

It's a gamble. The Palestinians insist it's paying off. "(The UNESCO) vote means that the majority of the world supports Palestinians' right to become an independent state and a member of the international community," said Palestine Authority spokesman Yasser Abed-Rabbo.

That was always true. But is the rest of the world ready to step up and put their money where their mouth is? $60 million for starters?

India, China, anyone?

Ironically, in the bitter conflict between Israel and Palestine, the real pinch of this UNESCO vote might be felt the most by everyone except them.

This is an edited version of a blog that first appeared on Firstpost.com.

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