Politics & Policy

Kofi’s Hour Is Up

Incompetence upon insult upon outrage.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece is the cover story of the December 13, 2004, issue of National Review.

This has been a wretched year for Kofi Annan. The U.N. secretary general has looked a forlorn figure on the world stage: Hugely overshadowed as a global leader by George W. Bush and Tony Blair, he has appeared weak and clueless in confronting major problems, including terrorism, WMD proliferation in Iran and elsewhere, and genocide in Sudan. At the same time, the massive scandal over the U.N.’s administration of the Iraq Oil for Food program has brought the world body’s reputation to an all-time low. To cap it all, in the wake of a series of internal scandals, the U.N.’s own employee union has just passed a vote of no confidence in the U.N.’s senior management: a thinly veiled protest against Annan himself.

The secretary general is now an embittered spectator of world events, and lets barely a week pass without a sermon on the perils of America’s supposedly unilateralist foreign policy. A spectacular failure, as well as a great mediocrity, Annan is looking increasingly ineffectual and isolated. His attacks on the U.S. over its decision to go to war with Iraq indicate a U.N. in steep, possibly terminal decline, struggling for relevance.

As for the Oil for Food scandal, it is more than just the biggest scandal in the U.N.’s history; it may well be the biggest financial fraud in modern times. Set up in the mid-1990s as a means of providing humanitarian aid to Iraqis, the Oil for Food program was subverted and manipulated by Saddam Hussein’s regime, allegedly with the complicity of U.N. officials, to help prop up the Iraqi dictator. Saddam’s dictatorship was able to siphon an estimated $21.3 billion from the program through oil smuggling and systematic thievery, by demanding illegal payments from companies buying Iraqi oil and kickbacks from those selling goods to Iraq. All this took place under the noses of U.N. bureaucrats: According to the report of U.S. weapons inspector Charles Duelfer, Benon Sevan–Annan’s appointee as executive director of the Iraq program–received from Saddam a voucher for 13 million barrels of oil.

On Capitol Hill, Oil for Food has become one of the hottest investigative issues in years, with huge amounts of evidence indicating corruption and bribery on an epic scale. The program is now being investigated by no fewer than five congressional committees: the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations; the House International Relations Committee; the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations; and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Several other committees are also likely to launch investigations. In addition, there are three U.S. federal investigations underway–by the General Accounting Office, the Department of Justice, and the U.S. Treasury. In a further embarrassment for Annan, the Justice Department is investigating his son, Kojo, in connection with his role as a paid consultant to Cotecna Inspection SA, a Swiss-based company that received a contract for inspecting goods shipped to Iraq under the Oil for Food program.

Highly damaging questions are being asked regarding Kofi Annan himself: Did the secretary general turn a blind eye to U.N. mismanagement and corruption in overseeing the Oil for Food program? Did he sympathize with the efforts of Saddam and key members of the Security Council to lift U.N. sanctions against Iraq? Was he influenced in his decision-making regarding the program by his son’s involvement with Cotecna? The secretary general’s refusal to cooperate with congressional investigators has led to widespread anger and exasperation on Capitol Hill. Sen. Norm Coleman, the Republican chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, and his Democratic counterpart, Carl Levin, accused Annan of “interfering with our ability to get information we need” from the U.N. Speaking to CNN, Coleman blasted the U.N. for “proactively interfering with our investigation.”…

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