On the eve of President Bush's trip to Africa, his administration has decided to drastically cut money for United Nations peacekeeping missions in war-torn countries there.
According to White House figures quietly released this week, more than $193 million for U.N. troops would be cut for missions in Liberia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d'Ivoire and elsewhere. A State Department official who would not be named confirmed to ABC News Monday that the cuts could be even worse.
For the record, State Department officials disputed cuts would be as deep as what the administration's documents showed.
"We don't yet know what the overall [funding] figure is for 2009," said State Department spokeswoman Jessica Simon. Though its official budget says funding will be cut, the administration may ask Congress for more money through a supplemental bill later this year, she explained.
"America's reputation and standing are not helped when we call and vote for -- but don't pay our fair share of -- new and bigger U.N. peacekeeping operations in places like Darfur and Chad," Deborah Derrick, executive director of the Better World Campaign, told ABC News. "Great nations pay their bills."
Derrick's group and others say the administration's figures understate the cuts. Because the United States has already been underfunding U.N. peacekeeping operations, next year's belt-tightening will actually mean the U.S. government will fail to pay more than $600 million it will owe.
More than $500 million of that shortfall will hit peacekeeping projects on the African continent, according to BWC and Refugees International, which conducted the study.
But privately, a State Department official said that no one could say whether there would be peacekeeping money included in any supplemental, and added that if spending this year increases, the shortfall in next year's spending could appear even more dramatic.
The U.N. did not respond to a request for comment.
Year after year, the United States has failed to pay its assessed share of dues for U.N. peacekeeping efforts -- so-called "blue-helmet" missions to pacify hotspots that might otherwise require U.S. military intervention, as politicians from both parties have noted. Total arrears are now nearly $1.2 billion, the advocacy groups said.
News of the proposed cuts come at an inconvenient time for the White House, which is preparing for a rare seven-day trip to Africa beginning Friday. In preparation for the visit, White House officials have presented the image that, as one unnamed official recently told a reporter, "The president really cares about Africa."
The trip is "an opportunity to demonstrate American commitment to the people of these countries and to Africa," top Bush security official Steven Hadley said in a speech last week.
Hadley noted that the Bush administration has committed the United States to hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for education, health and finance projects in Africa.
Bush's 2009 budget, Hadley said, "will ensure that our nation keeps its promise to our international partners and to the people of Africa."
In war-torn Liberia, which President Bush will visit on his trip, the White House has proposed spending $56 million less on the U.N. peacekeeping mission there than it did last year.