Plenty of work ahead

Posted: Dec 27, 2004 12:00 AM

Next month, President Bush?s nominee to head the State Department will have to convince a majority of the Senate that she?s capable of being the country?s top diplomat. But despite the pomp and circumstance, Condoleezza Rice?s televised hearings will be the easy part.

Assuming she passes muster with the lawmakers, she?ll then need to actually manage the State Department, where an entire diplomatic culture is already in place, ready to oppose her. A culture highlighted by people such as James Dobbins.

  ?The [United Nations] oil-for-food program achieved its two objectives: providing food to the Iraqi people and preventing Saddam Hussein from rebuilding his military threat to the region,? Dobbins, a former assistant secretary of state, claimed in the Dec. 10 Washington Post.

 Well, oil-for-food certainly did plenty of things. It enriched some international bureaucrats. It allowed Saddam to maintain his deadly reign over the Iraqi people. But it certainly didn?t work.

The program was started by the U.N. in 1995. In the world body?s words, it was to be ?a temporary measure to provide for the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people.? At one point, almost two-thirds of Iraqis relied on the program. But even under oil-for-food, thousands of Iraqi children starved death, or died of easily preventable diseases. Food and medicine simply didn?t make it to the people.

Instead, Saddam extorted billions of dollars. This doesn?t seem to bother some diplomats. ?Hussein and his henchmen took advantage of inadequate U.N. oversight to siphon large sums from the program, but the money was Iraqi to begin with and the amounts siphoned were never enough to undermine the purpose for which the sanctions were in place,? Dobbins wrote.

But it ought to bother the rest of us. After all, as Nicholas Burns, a state department spokesman under President Clinton, put it in September 1996, ?[Saddam] is letting children die because he prefers to build palaces to himself. He prefers to put millions of dollars into bank accounts for his children, his own children. He doesn?t seem to care about other children, Shia and Kurdish children.? The fact that Saddam was able to make money and move it around so easily proves the program was a failure.

And despite what Dobbins wrote, oil-for-food failed to neutralize Saddam. As the White House noted in 2003, ?former U.N. Human Rights Special Rapporteur Max Van der Stoel?s report in April 1998 stated that Iraq had executed at least 1,500 people during the previous year for political reasons. Tens of thousands of political opponents and ordinary citizens have been subjected to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, summary execution, and torture by beating and burning, electric shock, starvation, mutilation, and rape.?

Plus, Saddam paid blood money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Since that money was coming from the U.N.?s oil-for-food program, it clearly failed ?to prevent Hussein from again becoming a threat to his neighbors,? as Dobbins claims.

The former state department official did hit the nail on the head with one point. ?U.N. sanctions against Iraq, including the oil-for-food program, are worth close scrutiny not just because some of that money was stolen but because, taken as a whole, this represents one of the most successful uses of international sanctions on record.? That?s sad but true.

Sanctions have failed to contain North Korea?s missile program, failed to isolate Iran, and didn?t deter Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic -- although military action did.

And they certainly failed to protect the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein. Sanctions usually don?t work; that?s why the United States is taking a more aggressive approach against international threats. ?To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively,? is the way the 2002 National Security Strategy -- drafted by Condoleezza Rice -- puts it.

In the end, Dobbins seems to think oil-for-food was no problem because, as he puts it, ?no American funds were stolen.? Under him, the State Department?s message to other world leaders might read: ?Be as corrupt as you like, steal as much as you can, torture and kill as many as you wish, as long as no American money is involved.?

But Rice will instead be carrying President Bush?s message -- the one he?s delivered to Afghanistan, Iraq and now Ukraine: ?We will support democracy and freedom, and oppose dictators.? That?s the right side of history to be on. Let?s hope it?s a message that Rice can sell to our own diplomatic corps.