April 29, 2004


I just heard Representative Tom Lantos (D - California) say at the House hearings about the UN Oil-for-Food scandal:
At a time when we are moving towards placing enormous responsibilities, following the handover on June 30, upon the United Nations and the Secretary General.... to imply dishonesty on his part is so contrary to our national interest that it simply boggles the mind.
Ummm.... isn't that a bit backward given that this is a hearing about the largest financial scandal in history. A program totalling $65 billion dollars, of which only $18 billion was used to actually buy food or medicine. A program from which Saddam appears to have skimmed $10 billion. That enriched the UN and the Secretariat over a billion dollars and their friends perhaps even more. That appears to have funded terrorist networks and criminal banks. That paid for Saddam's organs of propaganda and oppression instead of humanitarian aid. That paid for intransigent opposition to US policy towards Iraq. Shouldn't the argument be:
At a time when we are investigating the honesty, compentence, and transparency of the United Nations and the Secretary General.... to imply that we should be moving toward placing enormous responsibilities, following the handover on June 30, upon them is so contrary to our national interest that it simply boggles the mind.
Update: Thanks to Instareader pressure, I doublechecked the numbers. Commentary magazine actually says that $15 billion worth of "food and health supplies" reached Iraq before the fall of Saddam, not $18 billion. Posted by richard at April 29, 2004 01:20 AM

Enjoy the instalanche!

You're dead-on, and I'm sorry to hear Lantos say it. I live near but not in his district and he's usually much more sensible.

Posted by: shelby at April 29, 2004 02:18 PM

I see...it's wrong to question the honesty and integrity of the UN but it isn't to question the President's?

Gimme a break!

Posted by: tom at April 29, 2004 02:31 PM

I've been (or thought I had been) following allegations of UN corruption on this issue since back when they were but a twinkle in the eyes of a few writers in such places as The New Republic. Actually, since way before that.

I've never seen the $18 billion figure before. Is that a new one I just missed? Where did it come from?

Posted by: MattJ at April 29, 2004 02:33 PM


I was working from memory. Commentary magazine says it was less. Here's the breakdown they show.

The total program was around $65 billion. $45 billion went to Iraq, $18 billion to Kuwaiti reparations, and almost $2 billion to the UN. Of the $45 billion, "an official total of $15 billion worth of food and health supplies... had been received by the time Saddam fell."

The other $30 billion paid for upgrades to Iraq's oil industry, stadiums and television equipment. In other words to prop up the regime and the program – not to help the Iraqi people.

I did forget about the $18 billion to Kuwait, which was definitely better spent, but it wasn't the public rationale for the program.

Oh, take Commentary with a grain of salt since they obviously have a slant on the issue, but I have no reason to doubt the numbers.

Posted by: richard at April 29, 2004 03:02 PM


maybe if you replace "national interest" with "my party's interest" you will see how Lantos is able to distinguish the two.

Posted by: richard at April 29, 2004 03:05 PM


Heh. Great description.

Posted by: A E Hansen at April 29, 2004 03:17 PM

At a time when we are moving towards placing responsibility in the hands of the UN is the exact right time to question the UN's honesty and competence. Does Lantos think we should wait until after the transfer to ask these questions?

Sounds like a formula for another Rawanda...

Posted by: Dan at April 29, 2004 03:36 PM

I am not that surprised as Lantos has always struck me as a globalist who believes that we should move to a one government world. Anything that derides from that vision he is against.

Posted by: JB Elliott at April 29, 2004 03:50 PM

Holy crap, Rich! This blog's blown wide open!

But here's my problem with your post: certainly generalized dishonesty, incompetence, and opacity cannot be factors that disqualify an institution from playing a role in Iraq — or the Bush Administration would have to go to the back of the line as well.

But I know, I know: you destest my casual "apophases," and Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Bremer are our exploitative cronyists and demagogues, so let them run amok. The simple fact is that the UN, for all its faults, is a better bet for nation-building than the US, particularly under these conditions.

Putting aside the simple fact that they're more experienced at it (for better or for worse), they're not American. And that means something, for legitimacy purposes, when the Iraqi people, right or wrong, are increasingly suspicious of the motives underlying the U.S.-led invasion and occupation. Sure, the case can — and will — be made that the UN, when it acts, is simply an extension of the American hyperpower's will.

But multilateral peacekeeping spearheaded by the UN, and not the US, has a certain cachet of trustworthiness that the "U.S.-led coalition" peacekeeping does not — for the same reasons that an invasion of Iraq with the UN's approval was amply preferable to the invasion without it, and for the same reasons that supported our jeers at the Administration's decisions to consider only coalition country-based corporations (and to short-list Halliburton) for reconstruction contracts.

Yeah, fine: the Oil-for-Food scandal was terrible. These bad actions compromise the integrity of the entire UN institution. We get it. But you fail to show how this failure peculiarly disqualifies the UN from the specific enterprise of helping to transition Iraq into democracy. And I think that's an important question, when so much of the problems we're dealing with now are rooted in concerns that the U.S. is trumping up a puppet government of preferred Chalabis.

Do you really think that internationalizing this thorny problem will result in rapacious U.N. officials grubbing for shares in Iraq's oil reserves? Because otherwise I don't see what the Oil-for-Food scandal has to do with the U.N.'s ability to provide constructive aid to this process — a process that we're having some trouble with on our own.

Posted by: Brad A. at April 29, 2004 04:30 PM

Come on Brad. Would you continue to employ someone who has been stealing from you because your customers think he's a nice guy? Or hand over your checkbook to Wille Sutton because he knows how to add and subtract?
I'll bet you'd come up with some other alternatives.
If the UN wants to go over there and direct traffic in downtown Bagdhad---fine. But watch your wallet.

Posted by: reheatedsouffle at April 29, 2004 05:07 PM

So, Brad, you're not against greed and corruption unless it's Republican greed and corruption? How is that any different?

Of course, the greed and corruption of the Neocons is imaginary and exists in the minds of the left, but UNSCAM is real.

The main reason I have for distrusting the U.N. is not UNSCAM but Palestine, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia. If it knows how to build democracy, it has yet to show it.

Before anybody can build democracy, the people have to feel safe in exercising the rights and responsibilities that underlie it. That won't come from an organization whose conception of force is harsh language. As soon as the terrorists hid their offices, they'll abandon the Iraqis just as they did before.

Posted by: AST at April 29, 2004 05:11 PM

First they deny, then they stonewall, then they destroy evidence, then they take the lead in Iraq. Makes sense to me.

Posted by: Theodopoulos Pherecydes at April 29, 2004 05:45 PM

Um, anybody care to ask the Iraqis what THEY think about Kofi and Krew coming back to Iraq?

Posted by: tombo at April 29, 2004 06:20 PM

The UN may have a lot of experience in nation-building.

Is it particularly effective at it though? I think the jury's still out on that one. In fact, they seem to have the effect of making things even worse until they get bailed out or unless they have US/Australian/British force backing it up (e.g., Rwanda, Sierra Leone, East Timor, the Balkans).

To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, I do not think the UN has the reputation that you think that it has.

Posted by: Steve in Houston at April 29, 2004 06:22 PM

The UN in Kosovo has been unable, since 1999, to re-build or improve the delivery of electric power to a population roughly the size of Denver. The roads were paved by KFOR, mostly US military; the major city of Prizren was cleaned up mostly by KFOR (German army); and the UN has been unable to settle any issue in Mitrovica, allowing the Serbian enclave to govern who may enter the city and who may leave it. The trash is still piled by the roadsides; the future for Kosovars remains unsettled; and the economic infrastructure has not improved. Anyone who thinks the UN is good for anything as practical as "nation building" hasn't worked with them up close. The UN is not the organization that takes over and runs a place (see Korea).

Posted by: Cornell at April 29, 2004 08:48 PM

I was going to write long responses that addressed, in itemized fashion, all the subsequent comments. But I would be repeating everything I said above, but in paraphrase — if not monosyllables.

So instead I refer you once again to what I actually wrote, in hopes that you will distill from a reread what I was actually saying.

But congratulations, Richard, you finally found an audience that is impervious to nuance. Run with this, and your bid for power may come to fruition, thereby formally earning you the long-sought status of "demagogue".

Posted by: Brad A. at April 29, 2004 09:24 PM

Sadly there are still few ripples on the pond.

Flipping from FOX to CNN to MSNBC on a regular basis all day I found only FOX discussing the issue. Brief mention was made of "the investigation" in gneral terms in a short blurb on MSNBC.

There is nothing conclusive about my comment other than to note I have the *impression* that only FOX has an "interest" at this point. I've been ignoring the traditional press today largely to avoid the usual headache. I try to give myself a day off once in awhile. ;)

Posted by: Steve at April 29, 2004 10:42 PM


Thanks at least for injecting your usual dose of contrariness. There are parts of your post that make sense, particularly about the perceptual benefits of it not being American run.

But you lost me here: "The simple fact is that the UN, for all its faults, is a better bet for nation-building than the US, particularly under these conditions." As many of the responses that you chose to write off as impervious to nuance indicated, anyone who has examined the record of the UN in nation building (in Serbia, Kosovo, Haiti, East Timor, Sierra Leone) or humanitarian aid (in Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, etc.) would find it hard to swallow that line, no matter how much "experience" they had. If you add in the dismal post-colonial records of continental Europe (Belgium, Germany, France) it's even worse.

If your friend crashed a car every day, you wouldn't give him your keys because he was an experienced driver. Or would you? The American record, though less recent and frequent, is much more succesful (the Confederacy, Japan, Germany). But they all took much more than one year (arguably a hundred years for the first).

Secondly, as tombo said, what about what the Iraqis want? From the polls I've seen and the blogs I've read (including the anti-American ones) the UN that profited from the misery of the Iraqi citizens and helped prop up Saddam is as suspect as, if not more so than, the Americans. Does that matter to you? Or are you buying into the Lantos-brand expediency?

Posted by: richard at April 29, 2004 10:46 PM

(sigh!) It looks like I'm gonna have to repeat myself, after all . . .
but with bonus material as well.

First, if you want to compare the reconstructions of Japan, Germany, and the Civil War South to what's going on in Iraq, I'll just throw my hands up in the air and call the whole thing off. But you yourself added qualifiers ("less recent and frequent"), I'll add another — the situations are not remotely the same — and we'll agree to drop that subject. Imputing "competence" to the current Administration for the successes of American management in the 1870s and 1950s makes about as much logical sense as leveraging evidence of venality in the UN in one context as reason to disqualify it in all other matters. Would you give Caligula a vote of confidence because Augustus had been a good Emperor, and they were both Roman? I could beat this subject to death, and I'll be humane, because I'm sitting here in a bath towel when I probably should be at work.

But let's go back to what I said: I did not dare to trumpet the UN's record of nation-building. When I said the UN was the "better bet," I wrote that as an intro sentence to frame my argument about legitimacy, which you seem to accept. And I did say they have experience in the matter "(for better or for worse)."

This may read like a chastened retreat, but I like to think that if you look at my original post a third time, you'll see that this is what I was getting at in the first place: only that America needs help. It needs to share responsibility, so that more resources can be brought to bear, so that the entire enterprise seems more legitimate to an Arab street that is prowling for a reason to cast us as imperialists, and at worst, so that we can shift some of the blame if it all continues to go to hell.

And more specifically, I was taking issue with the substance of your first post, which said that the UN is not competent or qualified to show its face in Iraq because of the Oil-for-Food program scandal.

Your car metaphor is well-taken, but incomplete. The question is not whether the frequent crasher is the most qualified driver; the question is which of two drivers you prefer. The first driver's dinged up the chassis quite a bit. The second driver has no accidents on his record, granted, but he's also never been behind the wheel before (though it's important to note that his father competently drove a Studebaker back in the 50s, and great-granddad did a bang up job with a horse and buggy in the 1870s). The second driver is also unlicensed and not terribly trustworthy. The car shudders and stalls when he tries to turn the key — in fact, it seems that the car, right or wrong, is reluctant to have him in the front seat. You re-examine the record of the first driver — he was on some bumpy roads on the early trips. Conditions were lousy, visibility poor — it's surprising that he made much progress at all, particularly when you consider his car was a clunker and he was running on fumes half the time.

I agree — it's a toss-up. Whom do you choose? You could send two cars, but they'd just be cutting one another off all the time, with middle fingers flying, and they'll probably end up colliding at some point. Or you could let the second guy drive and the first guy navigate and assist where he may, on the theory that the first guy is going to need some help handling this unbroken Bronco of a sedan.

I don't know the answer. But I'll say this — I'm not going to rule out the second driver because he's a card cheat. And that was the argument that you started with. Not the crash record, but that he was a card cheat. That was the argument I thought was fundamentally flawed., and none of these posts have given me a reason to think otherwise.

Posted by: Brad A. at April 30, 2004 09:14 AM

Fair enough. I still don't agree, but when you frame it as an argument, it sounds much more reasonable. How about this slight change to the extended metaphor:

The first driver is not just a card sharp, he's a thief. And the last time you gave him this very car – not to drive, but to wash for you – he brought it back missing the CD player, the spare tire, the air bags, and all the loose change in the console. If fact, he took things that will make the upcoming drive much more dangerous. And, the car seems just as wary of the first driver getting behind the wheel as the second (or any other).

Still like the first?

Anyway, this is fun, but I think we're running out of room. I mean, how do you then go on to illustrate the geopolitical issues of pulling driver #2.

I'm all for a limited role for the UN, to help add whatever legitimacy they still have in some peoples' eyes. Turning it over to them is a terrible idea – in fact, in my view, it amounts to giving up on democracy in Iraq and ruling out larger change in the region.

Posted by: richard at April 30, 2004 10:28 AM

One final point: the other proposed driver, who has always admired (and is in certain circles reputed to covet) certain of the car's features himself, abruptly declared that the car was stolen, packed a trunk full of explosives, and headed determinedly in the direction of his house. So he lobbed grenades until it stalled out.

The grenade impacts did incapacitate the car thief — to the applause of all bystanders — but the jumper cables found in the trunk ultimately proved nonthreatening.

I think we both want the car in question to become Herbie the Love Bug. And if the U.S. can swing that transformation, then Dubya deserves some credit (he won't have my vote, for the myriad reasons I've advanced on this site for months, but he'll get my kudos, which are redeemable for a comped plate of eggplant parm at my family's restaurant in Ohio). I just don't want him to be too proud or stubborn to ask for help.

And that's my last word on the subject. I swear.

Posted by: Brad A. at April 30, 2004 12:42 PM