Saturday, February 05, 2005

More on the U.N's Oil-for-Peace Program

There is no doubt that many Republicans in Congress have been exploiting the U.N. oil-for-food program to discredit the United Nations, diminish its authority, and promote the idea that it is really not all that bad that if the Bush administration wants to go it alone in the war on terrorism.

Nor would I argue with Ian Williams' contention in the Nation on January 10 that many of those calling for Secretary General Kofi "Annan's head are provoked by his opposition to America's pe-emptive war in Iraq."

One of Annan's most vocal critics has been Senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who called for Annan's resignation at a time when there was little evidence to call for such a drastic move. Coleman's largest home state newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, editorialized in January that Coleman's demand for Annan's resignation was "sordid", and driven by politics:

"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 the armor. They went after it with a venomous fury."

That is all true. But Williams and other similar minded defenders of the U.N. on the left have taken their argument much too far.

Williams wrote in the lede to his Nation piece:

"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..."

One would be hard pressed to argue with the contention there has been a concerted radical conservative agenda driven effort to discredit and intimidate Annan, and perhaps even cause his removal from office, for all the wrong reasons. The effort has been driven by conservative foundations and journalists who were given wide latitude to spread whatever spurious charges without whichever editorial page editor or cable talk show host on MSNBC or Fox displaying any concern for their disregard of the truth.

But to argue as Williams and others on the left have that the U.N. Food-for-Oil scandal is much ado about nothing is wrongheaded. The interim Volcker report leaves no doubt whatsoever that the U.N's program was riddled with corruption, mismanagement, and favoritism-- and compromised at the very highest level. Indeed, the U.N. official entrusted with running the program, Benton Sevan, the Volcker report concluded, abused his position by pressuring the Iraqis to steer lucrative contracts to individuals close to him.

Investigators are now attempting to determine whether Sevan himself profited financially from the awarding of those contracts. Volcker is reportedly looking into $160,000 in cash payments which Sevan claims were gifts from an elderly aunt. Volcker's interim report is skeptical of those claims, stating: "Her [the aunt's] lifestyle did not suggest this to be so. She was a retired Cyprus government photographer living on a modest pension."

Even Annan said on Friday that he found such disclosures to be "extremely troubling."

In short, if there is a danger to the credibility and stature of the United Nations, the enemy has been from both within and from without.

While conservatives on Capitol Hill have been exploiting these disclosures to diminish the power of the international body and as means to pay back Annan for standing up to Bush administration's pre-emptive war with Iraq, for those who support the U.N. to deny that there exists a very real scandal exists only plays directly into the hands of those on the other side who want to harm the institution the most.

The only course left is to allow investigators to uncover the truth, and then the member nations to insist on long overdue and necessary reform for the international body. Over the long term, everyone would be better served by a reformed and more effective U.N.

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