October 6, 2004 | National Review Online

Saddam’s Sugar Daddy

CIA chief weapons inspector Charles Duelfer may not have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but he sure found information enough to blow the lid off the simmering scandal of the United Nations Oil-for-Food program. As it turns out, Oil-for-Food pretty much was Saddam Hussein's weapons program.

As Duelfer documents, Oil-for-Food allowed Saddam to replenish his empty coffers, firm up his networks for hiding money and buying arms, corrupt the U.N.'s own debates over Iraq, greatly erode sanctions and deliberately prep the ground for further rearming, including the acquisition of nuclear weapons. As set up and run by the U.N., Oil-for-Food devolved into a depraved and increasingly dangerous mockery of what was advertised by the U.N. as a relief program for sick and starving Iraqis.

The report notes that the start of Oil-for-Food, in 1996, marked the revival of Saddam's post-Gulf War fortunes. His regime amassed some $11 billion in illicit funds between the end of the Gulf War in 1991, and his overthrow by the U.S.-led Coalition in 2003. Most of that money flowed in from 1996-2003, during the era of Oil-for-Food. One might add that what allowed this dirty money to stack up was U.N. policy — urged along and overseen by Annan, in the name of aid — that allowed Saddam to import the equipment to revive Iraq's oil production, all of it accruing to Saddam. Saddam's regime had virtually no other source of income; there was no tax base. It was out of these oil flows, condoned (but not well metered) by the U.N., that Saddam derived virtually all income for the astounding roster of political bribery and illicit arms transactions detailed in this report.

Saddam followed a deliberate strategy of using bribes in such forms as contracts for cheap oil via the U.N. program, or outright gifts of vouchers for oil pumped under U.N. supervision, to gain political influence abroad. He grossly violated U.N. rules, with illicit trade agreements, oil smuggling, and arms deals (conventional, but still deadly) — and the U.N. did not stop him. By 2001, Saddam was able to thwart many of the constraints sanctions were meant to impose on his regime. His strategy, notes the Duelfer report, succeeded “to the point where sitting members of the Security Council were actively violating resolutions passed by the Security Council.”

But no one has ever heard these facts from the U.N. itself, certainly not from such prime violators as France, Russia, and Syria — nor from the man most directly responsible for protecting the honor of the institution, Secretary-General Annan. Instead, Annan has to this day refused even to disclose to the public such basic details as the names of Saddam's contractors or the terms of their deals.

By greatly obscuring the specifics, this U.N. secrecy has gone far to blur the true damage and horrors of Oil-for-Food, leaving the impression that any graft — if indeed there was such a thing within the program — was allegedly committed by faceless people employing vague methods, overseen by an unwitting U.N. Secretariat, led by a Secretary-General who earlier this year professed himself ignorant of any wrongdoing by his staff, and who somehow never worked around to alerting the world that Saddam had developed a taste for doing sweet deals via states with conveniently shared borders, such as Jordan and Syria, or veto-wielding members of the Security Council: France, Russia, and China.

Blessedly, the Duelfer report clears away much of the U.N. murk. Volume I, devoted to sources of financing and procurement for Saddam's regime, provides hundreds of pages of damning details — lifting much of the cover that U.N. secrecy gave to Saddam, his business partners, and the U.N. itself (which had effectively become one of his chief business partners, thanks both to the 2.2-percent commission collected by Annan's Secretariat, and the deals parceled out by Saddam to pivotal member states). Duelfer's report, released Wednesday, includes not only general descriptions of Oil-for-Food corruption, but names, dates, methods, networks, and dollar amounts — a roster dubbed adroitly by Reuters as Saddam's “Weapons-of-Mass-Corruption.”

There is everything here from the eye-catching list of Saddam's oil allocations to Annan's handpicked head of the program, Benon Sevan (he denies it); to specific allocations of cheap oil for French and Russian government officials; to such low-profile stuff as how Oil-for-Food gave Saddam money and maneuvering room to meddle in the presidential election of Belarus.

There is information on Saddam's illicit oil-funded contracts to buy from assorted Russian companies such stuff as barrels for antiaircraft guns, missile components, and missile-guidance electronics. There is an illuminating section that explains, “Most of Iraq's military imports transited Syria by several trading companies, including some headed by high-ranking Syrian government officials” — including the head of Syrian presidential security, Dhu al-Himma Shalish. There are details on Saddam's missile-procurement negotiations with North Korea. And there is background on Saddam's deals with Chinese companies that helped Iraq improve its indigenous-missile capabilities, despite the history, as the report notes, that “China stated publicly on multiple occasions its position that Iraq should fully comply with all UN Security Council resolutions.”

Indeed, there is so much here, involving so many businesses and officials and illicit networks worldwide, that it may take a while for many of the disclosures to be winnowed out, and sink in. But what it boils down to is that the U.N. provided cover for Saddam to steal, smuggle, deal, and bribe his way back toward becoming precisely the kind of entrenched menace that all of the U.N.'s erstwhile integrity and well-paid activity was supposed to prevent — equipped with weapons that may even now be killing both civilians and Coalition troops in Iraq.

On the WMD front, Duelfer reports that while no weapons of mass murder were found, Saddam had made a point of preserving the know-how. By corrupting the U.N. setup of sanctions and Oil-for-Food, he was deliberately amassing the resources and networks to go right ahead as soon as sanctions were gone.

Among Duelfer's findings was that Oil-for-Food riches had positioned Saddam to massively ramp up chemical-weapons production in a matter of months. This has already inspired Rep. Joe Barton, who heads one of the assorted congressional inquiries into Oil-for-Food, to write to Annan, demanding further information. “The notion that the United Nations allowed the oil-for-food program to become an oil-for-death program is troublesome, to say the least,” wrote Barton. He added, “Given Mr. Duelfer's findings, we now ask for your personal involvement in the expeditious discovery and public release of any information in possession of the United Nations related to the diversion of oil-for-food funding into Iraqi chemical weapons programs.

Annan's office has not been answering questions in recent months on Oil-for-Food. The U.N. deflects all such issues to its own self-investigation, headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker — who has continued Annan's practice of keeping secret even such basic information as who bought how much bargain-priced oil from Saddam, and who has deferred all question-answering of substance until he delivers his report, maybe sometime next year.

The standard U.N. defense, offered up periodically by Annan and his subordinates since Annan finally conceded this past March that there had been, perhaps, quite a lot of “wrong-doing,” is that Oil-for-Food performed as well as possible under difficult circumstances. A little corruption, we are given to understand, can creep into even the loftiest humanitarian endeavors.

This was not simply a little corruption, however. And it was not vague, and it was not faceless, and it was anything but benign. The Duelfer report takes us right into the caverns of corruption, political rot, arms traffic, and U.N. complicity that under cover of a relief operation was allowing Saddam to to prosper. As we begin to absorb the details, the very least Kofi Annan can contribute is to pursue — with the same kind of zeal he brought to expanding Oil-for-Food — a campaign for the kind of U.N. transparency that should have been the first line of defense against this monstrous travesty ever happening in the first place.

— Claudia Rosett is a journalist in residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute.

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