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.
Then, Hussein's regime flagrantly smuggled oil through Iran and even terminated cooperation with U.N. arms inspectors so that the weapons inspectors had to leave Iraq -- and still the U.N. Security Council extended or expanded the oil-for-food program.
Dujarric hopes Americans won't forget that, the allegations aside, the oil-for-food program helped Iraqi citizens. "The program did feed 27 million Iraqis," he said. "The malnutrition rates went down."
The problem is, as it was structured, the oil-for-food program couldn't feed people without empowering a murderous regime.
If the United Nations didn't want Hussein to pocket kickbacks, it should not have allowed his regime to negotiate oil contracts. But it did.
Once the Security Council determined it would let a "sovereign" Iraq negotiate for itself, the panel could have admitted that Hussein would get a big cut of the pie. Instead, members agreed to the fiction of a $1 billion bureaucracy -- ostensibly to ensure that all the oil revenues went to the Iraqi people and not Hussein -- that was destined to fail.
Consider this explanation, by U.N. spokesman Dujarric: "So, when we were made aware of these instances of kickbacks, of improprieties, we did inform the Security Council. But we were not mandated to police the contractors; it's not the way the program was set up by the Security Council members."
Translation: It was never supposed to work. They meant well, but the price of feeding the starving Iraqis was financing Hussein's ruthless oppression of the Iraqi people.