Politics & Policy

The U.N.’S Greatest Failure

Saddam's Iraq evidently passed Turtle Bay's global test.

Wednesday’s report by Charles Duelfer demonstrated not only that United Nations weapons inspections in Iraq were a bust, but also the fundamental failure of the U.N. system. Consistently, the U.N. conceded and compromised, while Saddam Hussein corrupted and connived. Instead of containing and disarming Saddam, the U.N. became his lobbyist and financier.

The U.N. resolved to disarm Saddam in April 1991 after U.S.-led forces ejected the Iraqi army from Kuwait. The sanctions imposed on Iraq for invading Kuwait in 1990 were maintained to give the Iraqi regime an incentive to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. Inspection teams were to dismantle Iraqi WMD programs and stocks, a process expected to take, at most, a couple of years.

The problem with this system was that it was run by the U.N. in cooperation with Saddam, a man as cunning as he is brutal. Saddam’s instinctive ability to spot weakness served him well against the U.N. Time and again, Saddam absorbed the initial blows–the sanctions and the weapons inspections–and then turned them to his advantage. The U.N. could not give in, or accept the bribes, fast enough.

In its battle against economic sanctions, the Iraqi regime could hardly claim to be the wronged party. So Saddam found the best victims a propagandist could hope for: children. The Iraqi regime, itself guilty of genocide against its Kurdish and Shia Arab citizens, loudly complained that U.N. sanctions had killed half a million Iraqi children. Bogus numbers were backed by footage of mass funerals–of corteges filled with tiny coffins. In fact, the regime collected dead babies in morgues until it had enough bodies for a televised group burial.

The propaganda drumbeat worked, and the U.N. Security Council caved in. Pressure from Arab states and Saddam’s main arms suppliers and strategic allies–France, China, and Russia–forced a rethinking of the sanctions. Then-U.N. Undersecretary-General Kofi Annan, with the U.S. and Britain, came up with the Oil-for-Food program. Iraq was to sell oil under U.N. supervision, with the U.N. then releasing the revenues to pay for imports of humanitarian goods. Oil-for-Food proved to be one of those elegant proposals that diplomats think are cleverly creative but that Saddam found financially lucrative.

Before long every crook in the Middle East, along with carpetbaggers from China, France, and Russia, had his snout in the Oil-for-Food trough. Official oil sales became an elaborate kickback scheme. The U.N. and Iraq stretched the definition of “humanitarian goods” well beyond vital food and pharmaceuticals to include a sports stadium for Saddam’s son, the serial rapist Uday Hussein. The Iraqi Kurds, who first alerted the world to the Oil-for-Food corruption, were systematically ripped off to the tune of $4 billion with U.N. connivance.

Saddam turned Oil-for-Food into the best oil lobby since Prince Bandar arrived in Washington. Money skimmed off of U.N.-supervised oil sales ended up with men like Shakir al-Khafaji, an Iraqi American in Michigan. Al-Khafaji provided former U.N. arms inspector Scott Ritter with $400,000 to make the anti-sanctions film In Shifting Sands. Oil-for-Food money rewarded French, Chinese, and Russian companies for their governments’ loyalty in arguing Iraq’s case at the U.N.

While U.N. officials today blame Saddam for the Oil-for-Food fiasco, the record shows that they were willing accomplices. Some officials were bribed. Benon Sevan, the head of the U.N. Oil-for-Food program, was paid off through an offshore company in Panama. Others opposed the very policies they were meant to implement. Successive U.N. humanitarian coordinators in Iraq, Denis Halliday (September 1997-October 1998) and Hans von Sponeck (October 1998-March 2000), resigned their posts to campaign against U.N. sanctions.

In contrast to the feckless Oil-for-Food overseers, the weapons inspectors began impressively and effectively. Led by Rolf Ekeus–a Swedish leftist whom Saddam despised and wanted to assassinate–from 1991 to 1997, the inspectors exposed covert Iraqi weapons programs. After years of Iraqi denials and deception, with help from Saddam’s disgruntled son-in-law, Hussein Kamel, they opened up Saddam’s biological-weapons research.

Such success was intolerable for Saddam and in 1998 he forced the inspectors out. After Britain and the U.S. bombed Iraq, the U.N. Security Council backed down. Keen to keep France, China, and Russia on board, the U.S. and Britain agreed to weaker inspections, offering to suspend sanctions if Saddam cooperated. France, China, and Russia refused to back the offer, abstaining when it came to a vote in the U.N. Security Council. Then, instead of allowing the dogged Ekeus to return as chief arms inspector, the French put forward Hans Blix, the retired and ineffective head of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. Under Blix’s IAEA watch, rogue states had pursued clandestine nuclear programs.

Blix was a WMD Mr. Magoo. He knew Saddam was lying about surrendering his WMD programs, but as Blix admits in his memoirs, he kept that thought to himself. Despite all the evidence found by the U.S. of clandestine labs and illegal missile deals with North Korea, Blix says that Saddam had disarmed. Given more time, Blix would have given Saddam a clean bill of health and the green light for lifting sanctions. Yet Duelfer has revealed that Saddam could produce mustard gas in months and nerve agents in under a year.

Equally culpable was Mohammed El Baradei, the current IAEA chief. El Baradei told the U.N. Security Council on January 27, 2003, that “we should be able within the next few months to provide credible assurance that Iraq has no nuclear weapons program.” Yet in the New York Times on September 26, 2004, Iraqi nuclear scientist Mahdi Obeidi wrote that “our nuclear program could have been reinstituted at the snap of Saddam Hussein’s fingers…Iraqi scientists had the knowledge and the designs needed to jumpstart the program if necessary.”

So, why did Saddam not restart his nuclear program? Obeidi says that Saddam was profiting too handsomely from Oil-for-Food to risk fiddling with nukes just yet. That sums up the U.N. in Iraq: Its final contribution was an aid program so corrupt that it briefly made Saddam’s greed get the better of his ambitions.

Andrew Apostolou is director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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