Billions to buddies: Why the U.N. can't run Iraq


In Senator John Kerry's world, a place where one can have everything both ways, the way to solve the Iraq "problem" is simple enough: Turn it over to the United Nations. If the Massachusetts Democrat is serious, he's either naive or a true cynic.

We're learning much from Iraq. We have learned, for example, that the United Nations is as corrupt and incompetent an institution as any yet devised by the mind of man.

We are told that President Bush wants to avoid his father's mistakes in Iraq, so it's worth taking a moment to consider one real whopper. After the first Bush administration drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait, the decision was made to leave Saddam in power but saddle him with strict sanctions to prevent him from his mad pursuit of what we now so cavalierly refer to as "weapons of mass destruction."

People still argue about whether we should have finished what we started back then, but regardless, we should never have turned the administration of the sanctions over to the United Nations. By doing so, we encouraged rather than deterred Saddam and put him in a position to buy off the United Nations itself and to influence the policies of several countries that would later oppose any action against him and his regime.

The mechanism through which Saddam was able to accomplish all this was the so-called "Oil-for-Food" program established after the Gulf War, so that the Iraqi people would have access to food and medical supplies despite the sanctions. Under the program, Iraq was allowed to sell some of its oil through and with U.N. oversight, with the proceeds going to purchase food and medicine for the Iraqi people.

The scheme grew into the largest "humanitarian" effort ever run by the United Nations, generating something like $67 billion in revenue between 1997 and 2002. At one point it was estimated than perhaps 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million people depended on the program for their next meal, and the United Nations touted it as a great success.

It turns out that it was a great success all right, but not at providing bread, medicine, and bandages to the people of Iraq.

The program's U.N. overseers allowed Saddam to divert as much as $10 billion of the money that was supposed to help his people instead to private accounts used in large part to buy "friends" in the West. He did that with the overt cooperation of high-placed U.N. officials whom he simply put on his payroll.

There had been rumors even before we invaded Iraq that things weren't all that they seemed, but it wasn't until U.S. troops arrived in Baghdad that documentary evidence of a scandal bigger than anything we have yet come to associate with either Iraq or the United Nations began to come to light.

The Iraq Oil Ministry recently released a partial list of people and groups who'd been paid off by the Iraqi dictator. There were 270 names on the list, including that of a former French Cabinet minister, a British member of parliament who had been a vocal critic of that nation's decision to back the United States in Iraq, and U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Benon Sevan, the man who actually ran the program.

To top it all off, the list also includes a company with which Secretary-General Kofi Annan's son has long been associated.

It turns out that these men and hundreds of others received millions of dollars in payoffs either to look the other way or to do Saddam's bidding. Most of those on the list were either French or Russian, and many were in influential positions in both countries– countries that opposed our doing anything about Saddam.

The whole thing is now being investigated by the United States and by the United Nations itself, but the United Nations has officially warned anyone who may know anything about those payoffs or who might cooperate with any investigation to shut up.

Kerry may not know all that, since he hasn't really spent much time in the Senate this year, but both Houses of Congress are investigating. In fact, after looking at the evidence recently, his colleague Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) said that "if the United Nations cannot be trusted to run a humanitarian program, its other activities, including peacekeeping... may be called into question."

This is the body Kerry would have the United States turn to for help in Iraq.

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental affairs firm. This essay originally appeared in The Hill, a non-partisan Congress-oriented weekly.