Last June UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said of the media coverage of the so-called Oil for Food Scandal, "It's a bit like lynching, actually." By December the vigilantes were lining up, swinging their ropes. The neoconservative and paleoconservative assault on him and the UN has been like a slightly slower version of the Swift Boat veterans' campaign against Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry--right down to the halfhearted and belated disavowals by George W. Bush.
Listening to the cable pundits, you would never suspect that there is no proof at this point that Annan, or indeed anyone else at the UN, did anything wrong. Charges of corruption against UN official Benon Sevan are suspect at best, given that they come via Ahmad Chalabi, who was also the source of the discredited information about Iraq's illusory weapons, as well as the assurances that Iraqis would greet US and British forces as liberators. Nor is there any evidence that Annan used his influence to give Cotecna, a company that employed his son, the job of monitoring contracts under the oil-for-food program, and no proof that Cotecna did anything illegal or corrupt. Although Annan's son certainly let his father down by not telling him of Cotecna's continuing "non-compete" payments to him, paternal resignations in response to the sins of prodigal sons have not been a great American tradition--certainly not under the Bush dynasty.
There are real questions about Saddam Hussein's oil sales, both inside and outside the oil-for-food program, but all the serious investigations, such as that by the US Government Accountability Office, make it clear that most of the revenue he raised had nothing to do with the UN, and that the UN did nothing without the explicit or implicit support of the United States acting through the Security Council.
The reality is that the current calls for Annan's head are provoked by his opposition to America's pre-emptive war in Iraq. On December 4 the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the hometown newspaper of Senator Norm Coleman, who has called for Annan's resignation, provided perhaps the most succinct explanation of what lies behind the attacks. Describing Coleman's call as a "sordid move," the editorial explained: "For months before the election, the right-wing constellation of blogs and talk radio was alive with incendiary rhetoric about Annan and the oil-for-food scandal.... This is really all about Annan's refusal to toe the Bush line on Iraq and the administration's generally unilateral approach to foreign affairs. The right-wingers hate Annan and saw in the food-for-oil program a possible chink in his armor. They went after it with a venomous fury."
The genesis of the oil-for-food program was Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, which prompted the UN to impose sanctions to prevent Iraq from selling its oil. After the war the sanctions were retained, officially until Iraq complied with the cease-fire terms, particularly on disarmament, although US officials made no secret of the fact that they would veto the lifting of sanctions as long as Saddam remained in power.
In 1996, with sanctions causing dire hardship for ordinary Iraqis, the Security Council authorized the oil-for-food program, under which Iraq could sell its oil on the world markets and use some of the proceeds to buy food and other supplies as long as the cash was deposited in UN-controlled escrow accounts (no less than 30 percent went to pay reparations). Each contract had to be approved by the Security Council's 661 Committee.
Although UN staff told the committee that Saddam was skimming money from some of the contracts by selling the oil at a reduced price and then getting kickbacks, none of the members, including the United States and Britain, put a hold on any of them.
Needless to say, there are not many US officials prepared to come forward and admit this. Nor are many in the present Administration highlighting the implicit conclusion of the Iraq Survey Group (the team charged by Bush with examining Saddam's arsenal): that the sanctions modified by the oil-for-food program actually succeeded in their aims of insuring that the Iraqi people were fed, while oil revenues did not rebuild Iraq's armory of prohibited weapons--which is why the invaders were not able to find them.
The story of how the neocon echo chamber made oil for food into a UN scandal begins with Claudia Rosett, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who is now "journalist in residence" at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). In a 2002 Journal op-ed, just after Bush broke with his own hard-liners by going to the UN to ask for backing for an Iraq invasion, she called the program "an unholy union between Saddam and the U.N.," in which "Saddam has been getting around the sanctions via surcharge-kickback deals and smuggling." In an April 2003 New York Times piece she said "lifting the sanctions would take away the United Nations' remaining leverage in Iraq. If the oil-for-food operation is extended, however, it will have a tremendous influence on shaping the new Iraq. Before that is allowed to happen, let's see the books." Denying that the foundation, or for that matter Chalabi, set her on her quest, Rosett says she began looking at the program as part of a broader look at the Iraq economy, and that as soon as its structure was explained to her, "it was obvious that there was enormous opportunity there for graft."
The idea that the UN has "failed" by not backing the US invasion of Iraq and that everything Saddam did could be laid at its door was very much part of the house philosophy of FDD, whose masthead is a comprehensive list of those who pushed for the invasion of Iraq. The organization itself, as one observer commented, is the Project for the New American Century--the major cheerleader for the Iraq war--in another form. Its board includes Steve Forbes, Jack Kemp, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Frank Lautenberg, Newt Gingrich and James Woolsey, not to mention Richard Perle and Charles Krauthammer. Tom Barry, policy director of the International Relations Center and historian of the neocon network, says FDD "has suddenly become a major player on the right and among neocon policy institutes, one reason being that it is so richly endowed." As its own website boasts, it is closely connected with the Iraqis around the Iraqi National Congress and Chalabi.
Clifford May, FDD president and former RNC spokesman, is eager to admit that "oil for food is something we have been working hard on" but denies "that either Claudia or I have called for [Annan's] resignation." That's not because May admires the UN; he calls it "an institution badly in need of reform, whether it's for the sex scandals in the Congo or for the pretense some people in it have to become a super government for the world, or a world Supreme Court." Asked her opinion about the use others have made of her work, Rosett says, "I have focused on reporting the story, and where I have so far called for changes at the UN, have urged much greater transparency and accountability."
There is indeed a lack of transparency at the UN, but all those contracts were examined by the sanctions committee and the US State Department. Rosett denies "going after" the UN and says that "whatever was done wrong should be brought to light." But she is adamant that the UN is most at fault and she has neglected to give similar attention to US diplomats and other actors.
In subsequent articles Rosett maintained the pressure, but the issue really only exploded into the wider media world in 2004, after her revelations last March in National Review that Annan's son had been employed by Cotecna (followed several months later with the news that he had continued to get "noncompete" payments after he left). From January onward, the claims by Washington's then-favorite Iraqi, Chalabi, that retiring oil-for-food chief Sevan was on a list of 267 people for whom Saddam had authorized commissions on oil trades led to a rash of stories by Rosett and others focusing, as Chalabi had, on the one alleged UN connection.
When asked about Sevan in the Senate, Charles Duelfer, head of the Iraq Survey Group, admitted that his only evidence against Sevan was "what was indicated in Iraqi documents"--i.e., Chalabi's list--which has still not been authenticated. Indeed, another person named on the list was George Galloway, a British MP who has just won a $290,000 libel claim against the Daily Telegraph for its unwarranted inferences from that fact.
Rosett and her colleagues ran hot with the story, not least on MSNBC and Fox, which retained her as a paid "oil-for-food" contributor. Soon the scandal was "the biggest in the history of the Universe," according to her FDD colleague and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. William Safire picked up on Rosett's work and fulminated in the New York Times, drawing in House International Relations Committee chair Henry Hyde, who's since been on the case with all the assiduity one would expect of someone who'd said the United States should leave the UN.
Monica Crowley, hosting Scarborough Country on MSNBC in November, inadvertently substantiated the Star Tribune's claim of a "right-wing constellation." She complained that the "elite" press was ignoring the oil-for-food story, "with the exception of an intrepid reporter like our friend Claudia Rosett.... Bill Safire over at the New York Times, sort of the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal and the New York Sun, they have been covering it. But why haven't we seen more extensive coverage? This is the world's biggest swindle?" She modestly omitted MSNBC, Fox and the conservative radio circuit from the list.
Like the Swift Boat story, even though the fuss was essentially confined to these outlets, the conservatives made so much of the affair that the rest of the media seem to have concluded that there must be a flicker under all the smoke. Certainly the serious papers seem not to have thought they had a dog in this fight or that it was their job to exonerate the UN. And the UN's own response was, as usual, tepid.
Understandably, Annan had assumed that his appointment in April of former US Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker to head an inquiry, backed by the Security Council, would see a return to sanity. However, the same people who'd demanded the inquiry then began to accuse Annan of underfunding it. When he found $30 million for it from residual oil-for-food funds set aside for administration purposes, Rosett, Safire and the rest accused him of taking bread from Iraqi children's mouths. The New York Post denounced the investigation as a cover-up, while Safire referred insultingly to Annan's "manipulative abuse of Paul Volcker," whose reputation for integrity, he said, "is being shredded by a web of sticky-fingered officials and see-no-evil bureaucrats desperate to protect the man on top who hired him to substitute for--and thereby to abort--prompt and truly independent investigation."
The witch hunters kept the caldron bubbling along until, at the end of October, Annan wrote a private letter to Iraqi Interim President Iyad Allawi, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush, suggesting that a frontal assault on Falluja was not the way to win Iraqi hearts and minds. After all, at the request of Washington, the UN is supposed to be overseeing elections there. Then the pot bubbled over. Within days, Fox's Bill O'Reilly was pontificating that "it's becoming increasingly clear that UN chief Kofi Annan is hurting the USA." On November 18 former New York Mayor Edward Koch followed with a column in the New York Sun claiming that Annan's "ability to lead the UN is seriously impaired. He no longer has the confidence of America because of his failure to create a consensus on Iraq among the permanent members." On November 24 National Review declared that "Annan should either resign, if he is honorable, or be removed, if he is not." This was echoed on November 29 by Safire, who ended a New York Times column with the comment that the "scandal" would not end "until Kofi Annan, even if personally innocent, resigns--having, through initial ineptitude and final obstructionism, brought dishonor on the Secretariat of the United Nations." Finally, on December 1 in the Wall Street Journal, Norm Coleman, the chair of the Senate investigations committee, called for Annan's resignation. Inspired by his example, Representative Scott Garrett raved a few days later, "To me the question should not be whether Kofi Annan should be in charge. To me, the larger question is whether he should be in jail."
When asked, President Bush pointedly did not repudiate Coleman's call with any expression of confidence in Annan but simply called for the investigation to take its course. A week later, after Blair had joined the rest of the world in expressing warm support for Annan and delegates in the General Assembly had given him a standing ovation, even the White House realized the damage Coleman & Co. had done to American diplomacy.
The best that Bush could manage was to have his lame-duck UN ambassador, John Danforth, give a halfhearted expression of support on his behalf. An unabashed Coleman read between the lines and held his ground: "I simply do not share the Administration's position on this matter," he said. "It is my personal and steadfast belief that Mr. Annan should step down in order to protect the long-term integrity and credibility of the United Nations."
The attacks on Annan and the UN are not likely to abate soon. Bashing the UN is an issue that allows the unilateral interventionists to ring the till, gathering support from paleocon isolationists across the country. As one GOP staffer embarrassed by Coleman's Joe McCarthy imitations gloomily predicted, the right wing is not going to drop the subject, because "they raise too much money out of bashing the UN, from the big foundations and from those small-town Rush Limbaughs."
Former Gore 2000 campaign head Donna Brazile, who says she is reconsidering her affiliation with the FDD, denounced the calls for Annan's resignation before the investigation is finished. "I worked on Capitol Hill before Kofi Annan, and the UN has always been a dirty word there," Brazile noted. "It just goes back to the neocons and their entire approach to multilateral institutions and their role in the world. They've got the airwaves to themselves. I just hope the Democrats stand up against them on this issue."
If the Democrats want to do that, they should begin by distancing themselves from the Democratic Leadership Council's shameful call for Annan's resignation and join those who signed Representative Dennis Kucinich's letter deploring the attacks. And they should join Representative Henry Waxman in demanding that the Governmental Reform Committee investigate the real oil-for-food scandal: what happened to the more than $8 billion unspent from the oil-for-food program that the United States insisted be handed over to the "Iraq Development Fund," overseen by US occupation authority head Paul Bremer. The rest of the Security Council reluctantly agreed to this payment, but only on condition that the fund be monitored by international auditors. The auditors were never allowed to do their work, and it is now suspected that most of that money went to Halliburton on no-bid contracts. Now there are grounds for some resignations. But you know who won't be calling for them.
Ian Williams, The Nation's UN correspondent, is the author of The UN for Beginners and has been writing about the UN and international politics since 1989. His Deserter: George Bush, Soldier of Fortune is due out in August from Nation Books.
© 2004 The Nation