Condi?s First Test: The Oil-for-Food Scandal

Posted: Dec 09, 2004 12:00 AM

Although the Iraqi elections on January 30 will top her incoming agenda, the first real indicator of Condi Rice?s tenure as Secretary of State will be how she handles something most in her new department would rather ignore: the United Nations? oil-for-food scandal.

On one side in Washington are those appalled by the ever-increasing evidence that Saddam bilked billions out of a program designed to help ordinary Iraqis, and they want accountability regardless of the impact on the U.N.?s credibility or long-term health.

On the other side, however, are thousands in the Foreign Service who have assiduously avoided obvious malfeasance at the international body in the hopes that the $21 billion boondoggle would somehow disappear.  Notes one State Department veteran, ?People here want this to go away, because they believe we need to protect the U.N. in order to preserve its legitimacy.?

No one doubts that Ms. Rice sees as her goal to advance the president?s worldview from her perch as top diplomat, but the question of how to approach the U.N.?s current mess is one to which she likely does not have a ready blueprint.  Whether she strikes a more accommodationist pose or pounces on the international body?s troubles could say a great deal about her willingness to rankle the entrenched Foreign Service culture.

Her hand, though, is already starting to be forced?more than a month before she takes the helm.  Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) has chaired a bipartisan Senate panel investigating the abuses of the supposedly humanitarian oil-for-food program.  Evidence unearthed by his committee?such as politicians and journalists on Saddam?s payroll and how oil-for-food was actually strengthening the despot?s position?has made it difficult for Washington to avert its eyes.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., former Sen. John Danforth, according to those familiar with his dealings with the body, had not dealt much with the scandal.  Explains an administration official, ?His M.O. is to make nice with the U.N.,? and pressing its leadership on oil-for-food would have caused an unnecessary stir.  Though not an ideological ally of the Foreign Service, Sen. Danforth is seen by many as a politician who views his job as smoothing over relations with the U.N.

Now, however, the official says, ?The general pressure from Washington has forced Danforth to talk to (U.N. Secretary-General) Kofi Annan directly about oil-for-food.?

Ratcheting up the pressure this week, Sen. Coleman took the very un-diplomatic step of calling for Kofi Annan to step down, first in a high-profile Wall Street Journal opinion piece, and then in several dozen radio and TV interviews. 

In language that will undoubtedly be perceived as unusually harsh by the world?s diplomats, Sen. Coleman wrote, ?It?s time for Kofi Annan to step down. The massive scope of this debacle demands nothing less.? 

Aside from a small group of mostly closeted conservatives, Sen. Coleman?s most recent bout of bluntness has not won him new friends at Foggy Bottom.  Not that he seems to mind.  Nor does he take any potshots, though, at the diplomats who resent his inquiry.

Interviewed for this column, Sen. Coleman said, ?I don?t feel I?m being undercut? by the State Department.  When asked if that meant his investigation was getting full support and cooperation from State, he stood by his carefully chosen words.  Moments later, though not necessarily in the context of State?s actions, Sen. Coleman added, ?We?re not getting everything I need at this point.?

Others on Capitol Hill are getting into the act.  Sen. John Ensign (R-NV) is preparing a resolution urging the U.N. to strip Kofi Annan of his pension.  While the international body can?and most likely will?brush it off, that such a resolution is even being drafted is a bad sign for the U.N.

As often happens in Washington, once a movement or a consensus reaches critical mass, the tide rarely turns back.  Not that that would stop State?s careerists from wanting to try.  The Foreign Service has a long, though not proud, history of backing thugs and tyrants, even after Congress has expressed its strong opposition to them.  The U.N. can probably expect no less?that is, if the Foreign Service has its way.  But Condi might not let that happen.

Although many conservatives view Condi with a skeptical eye, Sen. Coleman seems downright enthusiastic, displaying an exuberance that goes beyond the obligatory support a Republican senator is expected to provide GOP nominees.  And while he?s never spoken to the incoming secretary of state about oil-for-food, he seems confident when he says, ?She understands what?s at stake here.?

If she does?and acts accordingly?Secretary Rice would be off to a very good start.