Unlocking "the biggest scandal in human history."

A cheat sheet for the news.
Dec. 17 2004 1:30 PM

The Oil-for-Food Scandal

What happened, and who's to blame.

(Continued from Page 1)

Benon Sevan. Sevan, a Cypriot, ran the U.N. office in charge of monitoring the oil–for-food program. He is more directly accountable for its corruption than Annan. By many accounts, Sevan brushed off reports of corruption within the program as early as 2000. More damning, a CIA-commissioned report on Saddam's weapons and finances by former U.N. inspector Charles Duelfer charges that Sevan received vouchers for millions of barrels of Iraqi oil—which, if true, would explain his willingness to look the other way at wider corruption. But Sevan denies the allegations, and his defenders cite a few instances where he did flag reports of corruption for Security Council members but was largely ignored. Sevan's allies also say he is a humanitarian who was mainly concerned with sustaining a program that helped hungry people caught in a geopolitical struggle, not an auditor looking to pick fights over bookkeeping.

Defenders of Annan and Sevan. Pro-U.N. Westerners, such as the New York Times editorial board and the British journalist William Shawcross, argue that the United Nations as an organization wasn't responsible for policing the oil-for-food program. That was the job of member nations, particularly the Sanctions Committee, which included the United States. And the United States was most determined to maintain sanctions on Saddam Hussein. American officials, defenders insist, knew about corruption within the oil-for-food program but were willing to accept a little graft in order to maintain the sanctions that hampered Saddam's weapons development plans. Meanwhile, the United States more or less openly condoned Saddam's multibillion-dollar illegal oil trade with American allies such as Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt. "This was a bit of a special arrangement here," former U.N. Ambassador John Negroponte explained in an April Senate hearing, to avoid "unnecessarily and unfairly penaliz[ing] the people of Jordan [and other countries] from the negative economic consequences of sanctions on Iraq."

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Bush, for his part, has two reasons not to alienate Annan. He surely wants as much U.N. support as possible for next month's elections in Iraq and beyond. Bush may also conclude that Annan is as good as it gets, since any replacement will almost surely be at least as hostile to U.S. policy and probably perhaps far more so.

U.N. haters. The oil-for-food scandal is a legitimate one, but recently it's been driven—and often distorted—by people who seem interested in undermining the United Nations' overall authority. Conservatives resent the share that the United States pays of the body's dues—22 percent, down from 25 percent—and fume when the body doesn't reflect American interests 100 percent. The scandal presents a chance for payback.

Everyone here deserves some blame for Saddam's outlandish thievery. But what was the ultimate damage? Negroponte has told the Senate that the program largely met its goal of "creating a system to address the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi civilian population, while maintaining strict sanctions enforcement of items that Saddam Hussein could use to rearm or reconstitute his WMD program." The program did save lives: Average daily calorie intake nearly doubled in Iraq from 1996 to 2002. And Saddam never reconstituted the nuclear weapons program that was the ostensible reason for last year's invasion. The greatest tragedy of the oil-for-food program may be that, for all its Byzantine corruption, we never realized just how effective it was.

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