Friday, October 28, 2005

The Volcker Report, the UN/Iraq Oil-for-Bribery Scandal, & George Galloway

Readers will no doubt recognize Saddam Hussein in his glory days chatting with the British MP George Galloway, the current darling of some "anti-war" Americans who also happens to be an unrepentant admirer of Stalinism (he supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and describes the end of the Soviet Union as the saddest day of his life), an unabashed supporter of fascist and jihadist mass murderers in Iraq and elsewhere, a long-time enthusiastic fan of Saddam Hussein in particular ("I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability"), still a "dear friend" of Saddam Hussein's imprisoned henchman Tariq Aziz ... in short, a disgusting scoundrel and general sleazeball ... and one of the more colorful bit players in the ever-unfolding UN/Iraq "Oil-for-Food" scandal.

It looks possible that Galloway may finally be nailed for his role in this mega-scam (having been caught in perjury, like Scooter Libby and other participants in past decades of White House cover-ups). But first, the big picture ....

=> The massive scandal surrounding the UN-administered oil-for-food program for Iraq from 1997-2003 continues to metastasize. The latest stage is the final report of the independent commission headed by Paul Volcker, which was established by the UN Secretary-General in 2004.

More than 2,000 companies taking part in the United Nations oil-for-food programme paid illegal surcharges and kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, an inquiry has found. [....]
The New York Times newspaper said three members of the UN-established Independent Inquiry Committee had confirmed that the report would show that "the country with the most companies involved was Russia, followed by France." [....]
Preferential treatment was given to companies from France, Russia and China, the report says, all permanent members of the Security Council, who were more favorable to lifting the 1990 sanctions than the America and Britain.
The independent inquiry committee, which began its work in 2004, said in an earlier report that the program became deeply corrupted as Saddam arranged for surcharges and kickbacks while an overwhelmed UN headquarters failed to exert administrative control over the program. [....]
The inquiry found that Saddam's regime earned $1.8 billion through the oil-for-food scandal but earned even more by sidestepping sanctions and smuggling oil to Jordan and Turkey.
The United States signed a waiver allowing the oil shipments to its allies, enabling Saddam's regime to secure some $10 billion, according to the inquiry committee.

As I noted in December 2004 (in a piece on Some Implications of the UN/Iraq Oil-for-Food Scandal):

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.

The Volcker Report has now provided a mountain of evidence to fill out this picture. And since a large number of corporations, organizations, political figures, and other individuals in a wide range of countries were involved in different aspects of his scam, the legal and political reverberations should be extensive and international.

=> Just to indicate that there may sometimes be some justice in the world, it appears that one of the many villaiins caught up in this reckoning may be the appalling George Galloway.

It has long seemed very probable that Galloway was getting large-scale payoffs from Saddam Hussein's regime, but so far the kind of evidence needed to confirm these charges in court has not been available (partly because a key figure in Galloway's financial relations with the Iraqi Ba'ath regime, the Jordanian businessman Fawaz Zureikat, had absconded with the relevant records). So Galloway has been able to use libel suits in Britain to intimidate critics and to keep these accusations at bay. Earlier this year Galloway testified before a US Senate committee investigating the UN/Iraq oil-for-food scandal, and being an experienced parliamentary speaker and gifted demagogue, he grandstanded and had little trouble making the Senators look foolish.

Now, however, Galloway's crimes and lies may be about to catch up with him. There is apparently information in the Volcker Report to substantiate many of the charges against him , and this may cause Galloway to become the target of a British Parliamentary inquiry. Furthermore, several analyses I've seen recently suggest that the US Senators who questioned Galloway--including both Republicans like Norm Coleman and anti-war Democrats like Carl Levin-- may have succeeded, in their own dull and plodding way, in getting him to make statements under oath that will nail him for perjury. For some details see, e.g., here and here and, again, this piece by Christopher Hitchens:
This most probably means that what we now know is a fraction of what there is to be known. But what has been established is breathtaking enough. A member of the British Parliament was in receipt of serious money originating from a homicidal dictatorship. That money was supposed to have been used to ameliorate the suffering of Iraqis living under sanctions. It was instead diverted to the purposes of enriching Saddam's toadies and of helping them propagandize in favor of the regime whose crimes and aggressions had necessitated the sanctions and created the suffering in the first place. This is something more than mere "corruption." It is the cynical theft of food and medicine from the desperate to pay for the palaces of a psychopath.
Taken together with the scandal surrounding Benon Sevan, the U.N. official responsible for "running" the program, and with the recent arrest of Ambassador Jean-Bernard Mérimée (France's former U.N. envoy) in Paris, and with other evidence about pointing to big bribes paid to French and Russian politicians like Charles Pasqua and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, what we are looking at is a well-organized Baathist attempt to buy or influence the member states of the U.N. Security Council. One wonders how high this investigation will reach and how much it will eventually explain.
For George Galloway, however, the war would seem to be over. The evidence presented suggests that he lied in court when he sued the Daily Telegraph in London over similar allegations (and collected money for that, too). It suggests that he lied to the Senate under oath. And it suggests that he made a deceptive statement in the register of interests held by members of the British House of Commons. All in all, a bad week for him, especially coming as it does on the heels of the U.N. report on the murder of Rafik Hariri, which appears to pin the convict's badge on senior members of the Assad despotism in Damascus, Galloway's default patron after he lost his main ally in Baghdad.
Of course, Galloway may be able to get away with it once again, but the possibility that he might be brought to justice--if only partially--does inspire some satisfaction.

=> More important are the larger implications of this whole scandal, about which I would reiterate some of the points I made in December 2004, since I think they bear repeating:

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 [and the Volcker Report indicates, as noted above], 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