As front pages report every bit of bad news on the Iraqi war front in bold type, newspapers are giving precious little ink to what could be the biggest kickback scheme in world history. Call it: How Saddam Hussein siphoned $10.1 billion for his regime -- thanks to the United Nations
This month, the U.S. General Accounting Office estimated that Saddam Hussein's regime siphoned that amount -- through kickbacks and smuggling -- from 1997 to 2002 thanks to the U.N. Food for Oil program.
Lucky for Hussein, the United Nations chose to ignore critics who at the time warned that Hussein's regime was profiting from the Oil for Food program, designed to provide food and medicine for Iraqi civilians. So the United Nations helped Hussein amass more money to lavish on himself, more money to use to suppress his people, and more money to battle American and British forces upholding the U.N. peace treaty.
No wonder former Gen. Tommy Franks called Oil for Food the "Oil for Palaces" program.
All this was possible because there was no outrage that Hussein flouted U.N. rules. To the contrary, as Hussein robbed his people of money that was suppose to feed them, the American left and Our Betters in Europe called for an end to U.N.'s economic sanctions, on the grounds that the sanctions -- not Saddam -- hurt innocent children. In 1998, Hussein essentially expelled U.N. weapons inspectors from Iraq. No worries. In 1999, the U.N. Security Council lifted the $1 billion-per-90-day ceiling it had set or Iraqi oil exports, so that Hussein could sell more crude -- and pocket more kickbacks.
When Secretary of State Colin Powell urged the United Nations to "re-energize" its sanctions in January 2001, the very people who berate President Bush for having ignored Powell's advice on Iraq -- well, they ignored Powell's advice on Iraq. They were happy to heap the blame America, even as Hussein grew richer.
Finally, there is a serious investigation into Oil for Food. In January, the Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada printed the names of 270 individuals whom it charged were given oil vouchers from Hussein. The list included Benon Sevan, who headed the Oil for Food program for the United Nations. New York Times columnist William Safire made the scandal even more of a story when he reported that the son of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan worked for a Swiss company that held an Oil for Food contract.
In April, Annan authorized an investigation headed by the well-regarded Paul Volcker, former head of the U.S. Federal Reserve, which expects to release a preliminary report this summer. Congress also is looking into investigating the allegations.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reported, Sevan sent out an email that criticized pundits "who have never even set foot in Iraq and have never understood Iraq or the Iraqi people." Sevan denies that he received oil vouchers from Hussein. Annan compared said brouhaha to a "lynching, actually."
In May, a former Oil for Food coordinator wrote in The New Republic that he considered it "unlikely" Sevan accepted kickbacks. Michael Soussan's piece nonetheless reports how outrageously ineffective the U.N. program was at stopping the Iraqi regime from skimming money that was supposed to benefit the Iraqi people. "If the system failed to stop the kickbacks, why was the world spending close to $1 billion to fund it?" Soussan asked.
Excellent question. Annan doesn't seem to have an answer. He's more angry at the bad press than the criminal waste of U.N. funds. He complained to PBS, "We had no mandate to stop smuggling." For his part, Sevan blames the Security Council for preventing him from administering the program as billed.
Andrew Apostolou, of the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said of Sevan's lament: "It's an absolute pathetic excuse. We all knew about abuses in the oil for food program." Apostolous says, "I am not one of those knee-jerk U.N.-ophobes. ... We need the United Nations and we need the United Nations to work." Still, he added, "In the long run, if we don't reform the United Nations, it is going to whither on the vine."
Reform is a kind word. It says something rotten about the value system at the United Nations that it took this long for Annan to act.