As the House Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee convened a hearing on the United Nations' oil-for-food program last week, Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, asked a good question: Is the purpose of the hearing "to conduct proper oversight and ensure accountability so that Iraqi oil revenues get to the Iraqi people, or is it, to be blunt about it, simply to bash the United Nations?"
I figure the answer is: both.
The U.S. General Accounting Office investigated the program and estimated that Saddam Hussein's regime skimmed $10.1 billion through smuggling and oil-for-food kickbacks between 1997 and 2002.
The hearing gave a boost to Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has introduced a bill to reduce U.S. dues to the United Nations by 10 percent if the United Nations fails to cooperate with oil-for-food probes.
When I asked Flake, who testified at the hearing, why the Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee was investigating Oil-for-Food, he said he "didn't know." The more investigations, I presume, the merrier. Flake said he has 62 co-sponsors to his bill, and the more the United Nations stonewalls, the better his bill will do.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told me, "We have cooperated in the past with the GAO," and added that the United Nations had cooperated "quite extensively." But according to the Washington Times, Joseph Christoff, GAO director of international affairs and trade, testified that the GAO sought 55 audits conducted by the U.N.'s Office of Internal Oversight Services, only to be turned down because the audits were "internal documents."
Allegations that U.N. staffers received kickbacks prompted U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to name an independent panel to investigate the scandal in April. The good news is that the panel's chairman, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, is a man even U.N. critics see as committed to getting to the bottom of things.
The problem is this: A GAO timeline on the issue exposes institutional problems with the program that exist independent of the probe. To wit: The U.N. Security Council showed no backbone in enforcing the peace treaty that Saddam Hussein agreed to in the wake of the Persian Gulf War.
Hussein could flout the treaty, secure in the knowledge that he wouldn't pay for his defiance. Only other people would. In 1991, Hussein rejected an oil-for-food proposal because he wouldn't be in charge of it. Rather than drop the idea, the United Nations relented, so that by 1996 there was an oil-for-food program acceptable to Saddam Hussein.