Thursday, December 02, 2004

Some Implications of the UN/Iraq Oil-for-Food Scandal (Normblog)

Guest-posted on the Weblog of Norman Geras (Normblog)
December 2, 2004

Some Implications of the UN/Iraq Oil-for-Food Scandal

by Jeff Weintraub

This BBC report and a follow-up article in The Age are part of a stream of recent stories about the growing scandal surrounding the UN-administered oil-for-food program for Iraq from 1997-2003. Aside from their current significance, these pieces take us back to some key issues in the larger debates over Iraq from the mid-1990s through the crisis of 2002-2003.

In particular, they address the special moral and political dilemmas posed by the sanctions against Iraq, which were crucial to the policy of 'containment'. Over the course of the 1990s, one of the factors that rendered the containment of Saddam Hussein's Iraq increasingly unsustainable was a highly effective propaganda campaign that convinced many people around the world - including Europe, the US, and especially the Muslim world - that UN sanctions were starving Iraqi children, depriving the population of food and medicine, punishing ordinary Iraqis rather than the ruling elite, and crippling Iraqi society. This Baathist propaganda campaign was supported by a combination of people with sincere humanitarian concerns and a range of governments, corporations, and other organizations with quite unsentimental economic and political motives for ending the whole sanctions-and-containment system. (In 2002-2003, many of the same people who had been claiming for years that sanctions were criminal and had to be ended suddenly switched to the position that military action was unnecessary because 'containment was working' and should be continued.)

There is no question that Iraqi civilians did suffer during the 1990s, but even then it was fairly clear that this was due primarily to Saddam Hussein's manipulation of sanctions rather than the sanctions-and-containment system itself. As a number of people argued convincingly at the time, Saddam Hussein's regime always had enough resources to provide the Iraqi population with adequate food, medical care, and other necessities - and this was especially true after the Iraqi regime finally agreed to institute the UN-run oil-for-food program after 1997. It simply chose to divert these resources to other uses - presidential palaces, military spending, large-scale internal repression, destroying the entire ecosystem of the Mesopotamian marshlands in order to crush and deport the rebellious Marsh Arabs, and other essentials - while deliberately orchestrating civilian suffering for propaganda purposes and withholding resources to punish sections of the population most hostile to the regime, especially the Shia majority.

The grain of truth in this propaganda campaign was that, as long as Saddam Hussein and his regime remained in control of Iraq, they could effectively hold the country hostage. Under these conditions, most Iraqis did indeed suffer enormously, innocent civilians and children suffered the most, and the results actually helped to cement the regime's hold on the population - while inflaming public opinion in the Middle East and the larger Muslim world. (This article by David Rieff provides a fine overview. See also here.) The situation was genuinely terrible and morally intolerable, but the only real way to change it (without capitulating to Saddam Hussein and his foreign backers) was to overthrow the Baath regime, ending sanctions in the process

Mitchell Cohen, an editor of Dissent, cogently summed it up in 2002:

Sanctions permitted Iraq to sell oil to buy medicine and food, but not military goods. Yet for some time now a loud, scurrilous public campaign has claimed on the basis of a UNICEF report that sanctions helped to kill some one million Iraqis. But why, then, did Saddam rebuff UN appeals to buy baby formula in 1998-1999? Why was he exporting food? Why was he importing massive quantities of scotch for his hierarchy and building an amusement park for the Ba'ath elite? Why has he spent two billion dollars on presidential palaces since the end of the Gulf War and offered another one billion dollars in aid to the Palestinian intifada? Why did mortality rates fall in the semi-autonomous Kurdish areas, where the UN - rather than Baghdad - administers proceeds of 'oil for food'? Doesn't anyone notice that the UNICEF report was written in collaboration with Saddam's Ministry of Health?

It is true that Iraqis have suffered. The reason is not the sanctions regime (which has, in fact, been quite porous). The problem is Saddam's exploitation of it. I do believe that there is a moral debt to be paid to Iraqis, but not because of sanctions. It is due because the United States encouraged Iraqis, especially the Kurds and Shiites, to rebel at the end of the Gulf War, and then stood back while Saddam slaughtered their intifada. I am not optimistic about democracy in Iraq, but this debt can be paid at least in part by support for a Saddam-free Iraq, and by making it clear that whatever the immediate post-war arrangements, post-Saddam Iraq belongs to Iraqis, not to the United States.

Before the 2003 Iraq war, I had a number of arguments with intelligent, well-informed, and genuinely humane people who bought the Baathist propaganda line about sanctions. And some people continue to talk as though it still had some plausibility. But such a position is no longer seriously tenable. If there was any remaining doubt about these matters, the information that has come to light since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime has pretty much settled the question. It is increasingly clear that the funds diverted from humanitarian purposes were quite massive. Not only was Saddam Hussein able to rake off many billions of dollars that were supposed to be earmarked to provide food, medicine, and other basic necessities for ordinary Iraqis. He also used substantial amounts of this money for bribes, subsidies, and sweetheart contracts to build up political support for ending the sanctions-and-containment system. (Thus, the whole system could aptly be termed an 'oil-for-palaces-and-bribery program'.) It also looks increasingly likely that the UN itself got significantly sucked into this whole web of corruption.

Of course, I think it is almost certainly not the case that this long-term campaign of bribery (and more indirect incentives) was decisive in recruiting foreign governments, organizations, journalists, and others to support Saddam, to undermine the containment system, and to oppose military action. The governments involved were acting primarily in terms of their own perceived economic and/or political interests (however cynical, short-sighted, irresponsible, idiotic, and/or immoral their perceptions and calculations might have been), and most of the non-governmental actors had their own motives - ideological, selfish, humanitarian, or some combination. But it's also likely that the use of oil money for systematic bribery and influence-buying was a useful investment on Saddam's part.

As the article from The Age sums up part of the recent report by the BBC (which, of course, strongly opposed the Iraq war):

The oil-for-food program ran from 1997 to 2003. It was supposed to allow Saddam to sell oil, provided he used the money only to buy food and medicine.

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, evidence has emerged that Saddam found many ways to skim billions from the program. Some of that money allegedly went to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. It is also alleged that Saddam paid foreign journalists and sympathetic foreign officials, as a way of getting them to campaign to get the sanctions lifted. Around 270 people are alleged to have received vouchers to sell oil for millions of dollars in profit.

Among the people accused of taking these bribes are the former president of Indonesia, Megawati Soekarnoputri, and, most explosively, the head of the UN's oil-for-food program Benon Sevan.

Although it does appear that some important UN officials were deeply involved in this scandal (a matter that is currently the subject of several overlapping investigations), two further points need to be emphasized. First, it would be simplistic and misleading to focus exclusively, or even primarily, on bashing UN personnel or the UN as an institution. This would let the real culprits off too easily. The lion's share of the blame belongs to UN member governments that acted in direct or indirect collusion with Saddam Hussein and his regime all through the period from 1991 to 2003 - particularly those with permanent seats on the UN Security Council. The BBC report makes this point in the most bland and euphemistic possible manner, but it gets the basic message across:
Splits among the diplomats on the UN security council and flaws in the design of the oil-for-food programme played at least as much a part in what happened as negligence by UN officials or collusion in corruption by foreign firms trading with Iraq.
Second, as the BBC report also mentions in passing, it seems likely that the bulk of Saddam Hussein's 'secret' oil money did not come from the UN oil-for-bribery program, but rather from systematic and increasingly large-scale 'unauthorized' smuggling of oil - mostly through Syria, Turkey, and Jordan. By the late 1990s, any attempt to reconstruct and maintain the (rapidly collapsing) sanctions-and-containment system would have required, among other things, shutting down this smuggling. But the countries involved had developed such strong economic interests in this illegal oil trade that any attempt to end it would have been very difficult and politically costly at best - and in fact, given the role of Saddam's foreign backers on the UNSC, the realistic likelihood of success was probably negligible. This factor exemplifies the larger reasons why, by the end of the 1990s, the ongoing collapse of containment had become an increasingly self-reinforcing and accelerating process - which meant that, realistically, the two fundamental options were military action or capitulation to Saddam Hussein.

War is always terrible - and, in the case of the 2003 Iraq war, the damage has been compounded by the spectacular incompetence and inexcusable thoughtlessness with which the Bush administration has managed the post-Saddam occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. But the consequences of the second option would almost certainly have been even more morally appalling and politically disastrous. One consequence, in the fairly short run, would have been another genocidal bloodbath in Iraqi Kurdistan, as soon as containment had fully disintegrated and Saddam Hussein was out of his box. I feel quite sure that, under those circumstances, the likelihood that any outside powers would have been willing to fight a major war purely to prevent such a slaughter would have been nil. (Historical experience, in Iraq and elsewhere, consistently bears out such an expectation.) And this is only one of the quite predictable unpleasant consequences that would have followed from a capitulation to Saddam Hussein and his foreign backers - which, by 2002-2003, was the realistic (as opposed to wishful and/or question-begging) alternative to military action. There is also the fact that Saddam Hussein would have resumed his nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs, regained his options for military adventurism, and so on.

Of course, others may disagree with this conclusion. And I accept the hypothetical possibility that the long-term consequences of the Iraq war might turn out to be even more disastrous than the likely and predictable consequences of the realistically available alternatives. But any serious assessment of these issues has to begin by recognizing which options actually were available - and which were not. By 2002-2003, the policy of leaving Saddam Hussein and his regime in power, while keeping him in check through a system of sanctions-and-containment, was no longer one of these realistically available options. This policy had reached a dead end, was no longer politically sustainable, and was rapidly unraveling. And even if reconstructing the sanctions-and-containment system and prolonging it indefinitely had been a viable possibility, we ought to question whether it would have been morally acceptable or politically wise. As I noted earlier, the metastasizing scandal surrounding the 'oil-for-palaces-and-bribery' program can help remind us what the real choices and dilemmas were. (Jeff Weintraub)

Posted by Norm at 02:17 PM | Permalink