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April 22, 2004 | 9:47 PM ET


We've heard a lot about the need for a more multilateral approach in Iraq, and how we should get the United Nations involved in Iraq's postwar reconstruction.

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Trouble is, the more we learn about the U.N.'s role -- and the roles of other non-coalition countries -- in the pre-war Iraqi situation, the less credible such an approach seems.  Because it seems that the United Nations, and some other critics of the war, were in bed with Saddam as the proceeds of the U.N.-administered "oil for food" program were diverted and stolen, something that's now being revealed in a scandal that many people are calling "UNScam."

Here's a clear explanation:

It worked like this: Iraq would export under-priced oil, import over-priced goods, and cash in the difference through friendly middle-men. This occurred in plain daylight, right under the U.N.'s nose, with the complicity of hundreds of international companies, and possibly, the knowledge of many governments that had seats on the U.N. Security Council.
Beyond the kickbacks, Saddam was able to smuggle an estimated $5.7 billion worth of oil and fuel out of the country in total violation of the sanctions.  Hundreds of trucks would enter Iraq from Turkey filled with goods bought under Oil-for-Food - then drive off again with fuel destined for sale on the black market.  Other smuggling routes included a pipeline through Syria, and ships sailing Iranian territorial waters.
This sanctions-busting trade provided no benefit to Iraq's civilian population. In fact, it created drastic fuel shortages inside Iraq.  And again, it could not have occurred without the knowledge, and participation, of Iraq's neighbors.

And it looks as if the U.N. wasn't simply negligent -- it appears that many U.N. officials were involved:

April 20 — At least three senior United Nations officials are suspected of taking multimillion-dollar bribes from the Saddam Hussein regime, U.S. and European intelligence sources tell ABCNEWS. . . .
Most prominent among those accused in the scandal is Benon Sevan, the Cyprus-born U.N. undersecretary general who ran the program for six years.
In an interview with ABCNEWS last year, Sevan denied any wrongdoing.
"Well, I can tell you there have been no allegations about me," he said. "Maybe you can try to dig it out." And in a Feb. 10 statement, Sevan challenged those making the allegations to "come forward and provide the necessary documentary evidence" and present it to U.N. investigators.
But documents have surfaced in Baghdad, in the files of the former Iraqi Oil Ministry, allegedly linking Sevan to a pay-off scheme in which some 270 prominent foreign officials received the right to trade in Iraqi oil at cut-rate prices.

This also raises some questions about the pre-war diplomatic maneuvers, as Mort Zuckerman points out:

If you wondered why the French were so hostile to America's approach to Iraq and even opposed to ending the sanctions after the 1991 Gulf War, here's one possible explanation: French oil traders got 165 million barrels of Iraqi crude at cut-rate prices. The CEO of one French company, SOCO International, got vouchers for 36 million barrels of Iraqi oil.  Was it just a coincidence that the man is a close political and financial supporter of President Jacques Chirac? Or that a former minister of the interior, Charles Pasqua, allegedly received 12 million barrels from Baghdad? Or that a former French ambassador to the U.N., Jean-Bernard Merimee, received an allocation of 11 million barrels? Perhaps it was just happenstance, too, that a French bank with close ties to then French President François Mitterrand and one of the bank's big shareholders who is close to Saddam became the main conduit for the bulk of the $67 billion in proceeds from the oil-for-food program. All told, 42 French companies and individuals got a piece of this lucrative trade. No matter how cynical you may be, it's sometimes just plain hard to keep up with the French.
But they're not alone. Russians received more than 2.5 billion barrels of the cut-rate crude. Some 1.4 billion barrels went to the Russian state. Not to be left out of the feeding frenzy, even the U.N. got in on the action. It received administrative fees of about $2 billion for the program, which may be fair, but the senior U.N. official in charge of the program, Benon Sevan, is reported to have received 11.5 million barrels himself. Cotecna, a Swiss-based firm hired by the U.N. to monitor the import of the food and medicine to Iraq, hired Kojo Annan, the son of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, as a consultant during the period when the company was assembling and submitting bids for the oil-for-food program.

There were Congressional hearings on this scandal this week, and the U.N. Security Council is investigating, though given the apparent complicity of Security Council members Russia and France in the scandal, it's hard to be too optimistic about that investigation.

The consequences for the United Nations are likely to be drastic.  If it can't be trusted to run programs like this without its people being in on dictators' payrolls, how can it be taken seriously as an international organization that promotes peace and democracy?

That has United Nations fans like Roger Simon and Austin Bay worried.  And they should be.

The world would be better off with an international organization that was trustworthy, competent, and serious about promoting freedom and human rights.  Will the United Nations ever fit that description?  It won't have a chance until this mess has been cleaned up.

April 20, 2004 | 9:27 PM ET


I'm reading Neal Stephenson's new novel, The Confusion, the sequel to his earlier novel, Quicksilver.  There's plenty of excitement:  war, pirates and intrigue at the Court of Louix XIV.  But it's also an interesting look into the sources of the modern world.  As the wars and intrigue go on, Newton and Liebniz are inventing calculus (and Liebniz takes a stab at anticipating relativity and quantum mechanics), merchant bankers are inventing letters of credit and other instruments of modern finance, and all sorts of new political, military, and artistic ideas are in the wind.

When Quicksilver came out, I wrote a column on the important role that the seventeenth century played in the development of the modern age.  That caught the eye of Stephenson's publisher, and I wound up doing an interview with Stephenson the following week.  You might want to take a look.

The eighteenth century gets more attention, but the seventeenth century was where most of our modern institutions -- including much of the thinking behind the American system of government -- came from.  And the seventeenth century, with its international disorder and chaos amid rapidly growing technology and rapidly evolving social change, was more like the period that we're going through now.  It's worth a look, and while there are many excellent histories of the period, you could do worse than to approach it through Stephenson's novels.

April 19, 2004 | 1:02 PM ET


My earlier entries on John Kerry have drawn a mixed response.  Some e-mailers think that I've been too hard on him, or that I'm trying to tar the entire Democratic party as unpatriotic.

That's hardly the case.  I know better than that.  But I do feel that a significant -- and disproportionately noisy -- segment of the Democratic party is unpatriotic (at least, they'd rather lose in Iraq than see Bush re-elected), and that this is a big problem for Kerry.  Kerry obviously thinks so too, and plenty of unabashedly pro-Democratic bloggers, like Ed Cone are asking "could the anti-war left sink Kerry?"  Yes, it could.  And I think that Kerry knows it.

On the other hand, some people (click here and here for examples) think that I've been too generous to Kerry.  (Read this post, too).  It's hard to say.  Kerry's position on the war isn't that clear yet, and he needs to bring focus to it.

There seems to be a lot of agreement on that point.  Talk show host Neal Boortz observes:  "Instead of defending his patriotism, Kerry needs to defend his positions."

And as many lefty bloggers are pointing out, "You can't beat something with nothing."  Right now, Kerry doesn't have much of a policy.  Merely repeating the need for more multilateralism isn't enough.  (For some problems with that approach, read this on problems with the multilateral effort in Kosovo, and this "reality check" on multilateral efforts around the world.)

Personally, I'd love for Kerry to make a strong and positive case on what he's going to do about the war.  I've supported President Bush on the war for lack of a viable, trustworthy alternative (you can't beat something with nothing), but there are lots of other Bush policies -- stem cells, abortion, etc. -- that I don't agree with.  I'd rather not be a single-issue voter in this election, but in the absence of a coherent and trustworthy policy from Kerry that's what I'll be.  You can't beat something with nothing.

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