Friday, December 03, 2004

Debate Prep and the Failure of the United Nations

Those of us who opposed the Iraq war were let down by the United Nations.

In about a half hour, I'll be a guest on NPR's Tavis Smiley show, debating a writer from The Nation about the future of the United Nations and whether or not it's Secretary General, Kofi Annan should step down in the wake of the scandals surrounding the UN's Oil for Food Program (OFP). OFP was supposed to function so that Iraqi oil could be sold in order to meet the needs of Iraq's people while we kept Saddam Hussein's government under trade sanctions in the wake of the first Gulf War. But, it wasn't so simple as it sounds.

One problem was that since Saddam's government was recognized as legitimate by the UN, and was thus sovereign, he got to pick the companies who could buy his oil and the companies who could sell humanitarian goods to Iraq. Surprise, surprise, those companies allegedly paid bribes to him for the rights to the oil and kickbacks for their contracts to sell humanitarian goods and services. The most recent estimate is that Saddam reaped $20 billion for himself over the course of the program and this explains how he was able to build more than 60 palaces for himself despite the sanctions.

I've been investigating the program for awhile and have already written one article about it. One thing to note is that the UN, for most of the program, set the price for Iraqi oil at below market rates in order to convince companies to buy the oil in the first place. Of course, made the oil a highly desirable commodity since profits were guaranteed by the price fixing and this is where things went wrong -- the prices were set low enough that a company could afford to bribe Saddam for rights to the oil and still turn a profit selling the crude on the global market.

In my article, I found that a Russian company and an American company took advantage of the program to enrich themselves and to perhaps pay kickbacks to Hussein's regime by trading Iraqi oil and moving the funds to a seceretive account in Gibraltar. What happened to the Gibraltar money? Nobody knows but the Financial Times, in a story that is basically a follow-up to mine, says that the same two companies I pinpointed helped Saddam give free oil to Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Why would Saddam want to give oil to a Russian politician? To influence Russia's votes on the UN Security Council, of course. Saddam wanted the UN to lift the sanctions and he used the Oil for Food program to buy votes and support. He bribed scores of people, according to CIA analyst Charles Duelfer, including the man who was running the Oil for Food Program at the UN.

That Saddam was gaming the system was well known throughout the program and was a frequent topc if discussion among the Security Council nations. But the UN did little to stop it.

Why is this a big deal? Well, remember the run-up to the war. Bush claimed Saddam was building Weapons of Mass Destruction. Had Oil For Food not been corrupted, it would have been easy to say, "Silly Dubya, where would he get the money to do that?" Because the program didn't work, nobody could make that argument. The guy made $20 billion in 7 years!

So, the failure of this program is a huge deal. It gave Bush the narrative he needed to argue for war.

As for Kofi Annan... turns out his son Kojo worked for Cotecna, a Swiss company charged with monitoring the humanitarian supplies flowing into Iraq. He left the firm in 1999 but continued to receive payments from them through 2003 as part of a "non-compete" contract. They say he was working in West Africa, not Iraq, so everything's on the up and up. But, should firms trying to win UN contracts be hiring the Secretary General's son? It's at worst corrupt and at best the kind of ineptitude that makes the UN seem corrupt. Either way, it's inexcusable.

Of course, the right wing of American politics hates the UN and they're jumping all over this.

But let's not forget who loaded the right-wingers' pistols here -- it was Kofi Annan, who presided over the failure of a humanitarian program that could have kept the peace and then blundered into a situation that makes the UN seem like a vehicle for fraud.

The UN has an "independent" commission looking into this that has no subpeona powers and no real legal authority. There are also committees in the House and Senate who are investigating. The UN refuses to cooperate with either the House or Senate committees or with journalists around the world, saying its independent commission will come up with the answers.

That's not good enough.

The failure of this program has hurt the UN's credibility and we know from experience that the Bush Administration will use that to justify all manner of unilateral actions, both military and diplomatic, around the world.

I like Kofi Annan. He stands up for the third world like no other Secretary General has. But... he has to go. His credibility is shot and the UN, as an institution, is just more important than Annan as a man.

Okay, will be on the radio in a few minutes. If you listen to NPR, try to tune into the Tavis Smiley show today (it airs at different times in different markets.)


At 10:22 AM , Blogger tifanie said...

Hope it went well, Mike- your argument is certainly sound. I hope to hear it someday!

At 10:44 AM , Blogger adriana said...

hear it now:

third link down titled U.N.'s Kofi Annan Under Fire for Oil-for-Food Scandal

funniest moment: Mike trying to get his name spoken correctly.

YOU FREAKIN ROCKED! That was fantastic, seriously. Thank you for your candor.

At 11:05 AM , Blogger tifanie said...

Thanks for the link, lady! Mike, that was really great. The name thing was amusing- but it did make me realize I've been slightly mispronouncing your name over all these years. Poo. Another interview on CNN, too? You are certainly getting good at expressing your view, and it seems you are doing alot of media appearances. Fantastic, my friend. I am very proud of you!


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