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On Point

The Myth of Oil for Food


by Austin Bay
April 20, 2004

General Tommy Franks dubbed the program "Oil for Palaces." Internet wags call it UNSCAM. If the United States doesn?t force the United Nations to come clean about the deeply corrupted Oil for Food program and account for billions of skimmed Iraqi oil dollars, then we?re not merely fools, we?re party to the further degradation of a vital international institution.

I do support the United Nations. I?ve seen relief programs supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees at work in the field. Fall 2002: Refugees, fleeing the disastrous tribal war in the Democratic Republic of Congo?s northeastern region, swept into Uganda. UNHCR, along with several non-governmental aid organizations, provided food and medicine to desperate, suffering people. The work is vital. If UNCHR didn?t exist, the various sub-Saharan conflicts of the last three decades would have killed many hundreds of thousands more than they have.

UNCHR is a "piece of the United Nations" that meets on-the-ground humanitarian needs. Be glad it exists.

However, humanitarian aid operations require more than finances, coordination capabilities and expert personnel. They require moral credibility. Let cynics snicker -- snickers do nothing for the suffering. Moral credibility -- for example, the assurance to donors that relief funds actually go to help the suffering -- is absolutely critical to sustaining effective humanitarian programs. That?s a rubber-meets-the-road reason to investigate the Oil for Food cancer and punish the corrupt.

The goal of Oil for Food was to mitigate the suffering of the Iraqi people while Saddam Hussein?s regime remained under U.N. political and economic sanctions. Oil for Food was supposed to be a scrutinized program, with revenue from controlled oil sales providing food, medicine, and other relief supplies.

Saddam completely corrupted the program. Individuals and some organizations (corporations and political parties) received oil "allotments" at steep price discounts, then sold the oil at market price. Several billion dollars went into private pockets or kickbacks to Saddam. Front companies, like Al Wasel & Babel General Trading out of Dubai, specialized in buying luxury goods (and possibly weapons) for Saddam?s regime.

High-level U.N. bureaucrats and even Secretary General Kofi Annan?s son have been implicated. Iraqi investigators have compiled a damning international list of suspects, with Russian and French names all too prominent. Russia and France, through their intelligence services -- and, for that matter, the secretary general?s office -- had to know Al Wasel & Babel was not merely purchasing food and medicine.

So many of the self-righteous left still scream about "blood for oil" and maliciously accuse the United States of toppling Saddam in order to secure petroleum supplies. The truth is otherwise. Oil for Food lined the pockets of Saddam, his international political supporters, and corporate cronies, and that oil was paid for, hour by hour, with the blood of Iraqis slaughtered by his brutal regime.

The Enron and Global Crossing scandals harmed Wall Street and damaged the credibility of corporate America. The slow grind of American law has produced indictments.

Despite the psychological and media denial of -- let?s put the snobby mouthful in quotation marks -- "elite members of the international community," the Oil-for-Food scandal has already scarred the United Nations as a credible institution. I fear the breadth and depth of the corruption could ultimately affect legitimate non-governmental organization aid and development programs, in the same way honest businesses suffered negative political and media fallout after the big corporate crimes were exposed.

The United Nations, however, is largely beyond the reach of American law. It is a law unto itself, which is one of its problems. Russia and France are permanent Security Council members. Russia is already stonewalling an investigation authorized by Annan.

To pinch and paraphrase a recent line from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, we must debate the reality, not the myth, of Oil for Food, and confront the reality of the United Nation?s corrupted bureaucracy.

That means the United States and Great Britain may have to act on their own. Dare the critics to call pressing the necessary investigation "unilateral," for in this investigation Washington and London have a powerful ally, the people of New Iraq.

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