Unfit For Iraq
The United Nations can't escape the Oil-for-Food scandal.


John O’Sullivan

Not for the first time, the shrewdest analyst of international affairs turns out to be the great comic novelist, P. G. Wodehouse, writing on this occasion about the United Nations. The plot may be bleaker than that of a “Jeeves and Bertie Wooster” novel, but the banana-peel factor is about the same.

Consider: In recent weeks the pressure has been inexorably building in favor of a much stronger and more “central” role for the U.N. in Iraq. The partisans of “multilateralism” in the U.S. State Department, the British Foreign Office, France, Germany, the Democratic party, and the New York Times editorial page had all been arguing that the U.S. would inevitably fail in Iraq without the “legitimacy” bestowed by U.N. involvement. Nor would an Iraqi government handpicked by the U.S. have any better hopes of success. Only one handpicked by the U.N.–and by its representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, the former Algerian foreign minister–would enjoy the respect of Iraqis and of the world.

The Bush administration, buffeted by its setbacks in Iraq and apparently hoping that U.N. support would encourage nations like France and Germany to commit troops, capitulated to this pressure. The U.N. was invited in, and Brahimi began calling the shots. He warned strongly against sending the U.S. Marines into Fallujah. (They were withdrawn to the sidelines.) And he let it be known that the new government would be very different from the governing council that the U.S. had recruited–and that had taken great political risks for the past year to restore some sort of decent Iraqi rule after fifty years of savage oppression.

At no point, however, was it suggested that the U.N. would provide either troops or money to restore public services and order in the country. The division of labor was clear: The U.N. would provide “legitimacy,” and the U.S. would provide everything else. In return they would share political power between themselves–and with whatever Iraqi government emerged from Brahimi’s conversations.

Nice work if you can get it. In the words of the Immortal Wodehouse, however, “Meanwhile, unnoticed in the background, fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing glove.” (I quote from memory, but that is the gist of it.)

For several years, rumors had been circulating that the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food program in Iraq–ballyhooed as the largest aid program in the world–was seriously mired in corruption. Reuters news agency, watchdog groups such as the Coalition for International Justice, and the Wall Street Journal had all drawn attention to the increasingly blatant corruption of the program involving (according to the CIJ) not merely “informal on-the-sly deals,” but even “formal government-to-government arrangements.” But the reaction of the U.N. to these charges had been to deny any wrongdoing, to claim that Oil-for-Food was the most audited U.N. program ever, and to tighten the secrecy surrounding it. And largely because of the U.N.’s saintly reputation, the world moved on to other things.

But the fall of Saddam meant that Iraqi records were suddenly open to inspection. Officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority were asked to investigate any irregularities. Hence, two weeks ago, the dam burst–and revelations of extraordinary corruption poured forth at exactly the moment when the U.N. was poised to take control of Iraq.

The Claudia Rosett, whose reporting (including in NRO) has done much to bring the scandal to light, gives the clearest and most comprehensive account of its spreading tentacles in the current issue of Commentary magazine. To summarize it briefly here, however, a program that was meant to underpin sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by moderating its effects on innocent Iraqis with humanitarian aid became a joint venture by Saddam, senior U.N. officials, and public figures in Security Council member states such as France and Russia to divert many billions in oil revenues into their various pockets; to bribe governments, companies, and individuals in Saddam’s behalf; to establish a network of corrupt cronies beholden to Saddam around the world; to build up Saddam’s machinery of war and oppression in Iraq; and to do little or nothing for the ordinary Iraqis who were the poster children for the entire enterprise.

The Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada, whose investigative reporting has also driven the revelations, found a list in the Iraqi oil ministry of 270 people in 50 countries who allegedly received oil “vouchers” worth millions from Saddam Hussein–including the former French interior minister, the present Indonesian president, a number of Russian oil companies, the Russian state, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the family name, Sevan, of the U.N. director in charge of the Oil-for-Food program. In all likelihood, Oil-for-Food is the biggest financial and political scandal in world history–nothing less.

U.N. officials at a very high level were apparently complicit in this vast fraud. Among them was Benon Sevan, the program’s director and a long-time U.N. official, reported directly responsible to the U.N. Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. U.N. officials–whose approval was required for certain expenditures–okayed such purchases as Mercedes Benz touring sedans and the rebuilding of Saddam’s Interior Ministry.

Some will–and should–go to prison. Kofi Annan should at least resign since he presided, knowingly or not, over this vast robbery. Needless to say, the entire scandal casts a dark backward light on the U.N.’s convolutions in the run-up to the Iraq invasion–France, Russia, the U.N. bureaucracy, and the “peace movement” all had an undeclared interest in the survival of their co-conspirator, Saddam Hussein, at the very moment when they were seeking in the Security Council to save him from the consequences of his defiance of U.N. resolutions.

We should not be altogether surprised at the corruption revealed here. Multi-national organizations like the U.N. and the European Union are regularly plagued by financial scandals because they bring together three incentives for dishonesty: large sums of money sloshing around, the absence of the financial accountability built into the political arrangements of established nation-states, and a belief in their own sanctity and importance that enables them to overlook any sins they may commit. Similar scandals, admittedly on a smaller scale, flourish in almost all places where the U.N. rules. Maybe some attention will now be paid to them.

What is more worrying is what the Oil-for-Food scandal tells us about the political attitudes of both the U.N. bureaucracy and the political elites of the European continent. None of them was seriously hostile to Saddam Hussein or his brutal kleptocratic state–they struck attitudes in public that their private actions belied. None of them was even slightly concerned about the Iraqi people, despite their crocodile tears about the impact of sanctions–they colluded in denying promised humanitarian aid to those in need. None of them wanted to see U.N. resolutions enforced despite their sanctimonious rhetoric about the U.N. being the fount of legitimacy. All of them were mainly concerned with obstructing the Anglo-Americans in their campaign to enforce those resolutions and oust Saddam.

Now that these facts are known, the power of the U.N. to bestow legitimacy anywhere, let alone in an Iraq that is the main victim of the Oil-for-Food scandal, has evaporated into thin air. It has precious little legitimacy to bestow on itself.

If the Bush administration, because it is hoping to hand the problem of Iraq over to someone else, now grants real power to the U.N. there, it will be a betrayal of the Iraqis it intervened to liberate. And the American people–to borrow another insight from Wodehouse–if not actually disgruntled, will be very far from being gruntled.

John O’Sullivan is editor-in-chief of The National Interest. This piece first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission. O’Sullivan can be reached through Benador Associates