There was a time -- in living memory -- when the White House and Congress put aside their differences over a controversial international measure when it became clear that America's credibility as a world leader was at stake. No longer. Today the world is waiting to see if the United States, which has spent millions of dollars teaching the "rule of law" to emerging democracies everywhere, can be counted on to fulfill its legal commitment to pay its past U.N. financial obligations.

The issue is whether or not it is legitimate to attach unrelated policy mandates on appropriations that could affect our national security. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) ["Getting Our Money's Worth from the U.N.," op-ed, Nov. 3] thinks so. However, in his article he has obscured some important and critical facts that bear on the issue.

First, payment of past dues to the United Nations has been held up by disagreements over international family planning, which Smith has promoted through antiabortion language unrelated to the arrears question. Instead of defending this linkage, he has attacked the United Nations, questioning its worthiness as a recipient of U.S. taxpayer money. He doubts the administration's claims that the U.N. will become a "better organization if Congress will just write a billion-dollar check."

Worthiness -- though I believe the U.N. should be funded -- is not the issue. The money in question is owed to the United Nations for past activity. Most of it will go for past peacekeeping activities and will be used to reimburse our allies who have covered the shortfall. To pay up now will not involve new money. Congress and the president already have set the money aside -- just more than $1 billion in the 1997 budget agreement.

Second, Smith gives the impression that the United States did not really approve of the peacekeeping missions that need to be reimbursed. Through the Security Council, the United States has the power to veto a peacekeeping mission. We voted to send U.N. peacekeepers to Bosnia, so it is irrelevant that Congress later chose to fund NATO operations there when it became clear that the U.N. force was ill-equipped to manage the continuing regional hostilities. The United States still is obligated to pay for its share of the assessed U.N. peacekeeping costs of that mission.

Smith's claim that the U.N. stumbled again in Rwanda when "Kofi Annan chose to do nothing in the face of clear evidence that genocide was about to occur" is also misleading. The choice to "do nothing" was practically forced on the United Nations by its most powerful member -- the United States. After watching U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, policymakers in Washington knew the American public would not tolerate another risky peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, where the threat to U.S. national security was obscure and hard to defend.

Third and finally, if Smith thinks that "there are plausible arguments for resolving these [funding] disputes [having] to do with treaty interpretation and big power diplomacy" shouldn't that be the end of the argument? Failure of the United States to pay what it owes threatens the financial viability of the U.N. at precisely the time when we are asking it to do more in East Timor, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. It also erodes U.S. credibility in the United Nations. We can no longer be effective in calling for reform when we are not a member in good standing.

Unless the impasse is broken before Congress adjourns, the United States is poised to automatically lose its vote in the General Assembly. Given the potency of family planning issues on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, a solution could be imperiled by the temptation on both sides to play politics.

In his article, Smith indicated that he and his colleagues might give the president the benefit of the doubt and find a way to pass an acceptable compromise to pay the debt. This is an opening the White House should seize.

U.N. arrears is about national security. Must we pine yet again for the good old days when our government put that first?

The writer is chairman of the Center for Political Strategic Studies and vice chairman of Emergency Coalition for U.S. Financial Support of the United Nations.