October 7, 2004 | The New York Post

Coalition of the Bribed

Authored by Andrew Apostolou

Wednesday's report by Charles Duelfer, the chief U.S. weapons inspector, is devastating not for the U.S.-led Coalition that liberated Iraq, but for the United Nations.

The United States may have been wrong about Saddam's weapon stockpiles, but it was on target that sanctions were collapsing and that the U.N. could not prevent Iraq from rebuilding its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) capabilities.

Had the Coalition not liberated Iraq, Saddam would soon have been free to menace the Middle East again — and WMD-armed as well. All he needed was more time — which the U.N. and Saddam's Coalition of the Bribed were willing to give.

Under the 1991 Gulf War ceasefire, Saddam agreed to eliminate his WMD stockpiles and the ability ever to recreate them. Economic sanctions were to remain in force until U.N. inspectors stated that WMD capabilities had been fully and verifiably eliminated. That work was expected to take a year or two, but Saddam decided to frustrate the inspections as best he could and escape the grip of sanctions.

By 1998, when he kicked the inspectors out, most of the stockpiles had been destroyed, whether under U.N. auspices or covertly by the Iraqis themselves. Also by then, however, Saddam had found a way to compromise the United Nations, buy influence and undermine the sanctions. By July 2000, his regime was publicly boasting that it had beaten the sanctions.

The key was the U.N. Oil-for-Food program, which went operational in late 1996 — and, as Duelfer reports, was soon corrupted. It permitted Saddam to sell oil, with U.N. workers supposedly ensuring that the proceeds went only for imported “humanitarian goods,” such as food and medicines. Instead, says Duelfer, Saddam was able to earn billions of dollars covertly and use the funds to buy influence and preserve his WMD ambitions.

Duelfer estimates Saddam raked in $11 billion in illicit earnings while under U.N. sanctions from the early '90s to 2003. Direct Oil-for-Food kickbacks alone pulled in $2 billion. The program's head — Benon Sevan, a lifelong U.N. staffer — was himself on the take, Duelfer reports, paid via companies that he recommended, such as the Panama-registered African Middle East Petroleum Company.

Oil-for-Food helped Saddam create his own coalition to buy influence in the Security Council, blocking any U.S. attempt to enforce the U.N. resolutions.

For all the French talk of Jacques Chirac's principled objections to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Saddam realized that the way to France's vote was through its pocketbook. Lucrative contracts for French companies, as well as firms from China and Russia, were part of Saddam's bid for diplomatic protection. 

A French legislator told Iraqi intelligence in May 2002 that France would veto any U.N. resolution authorizing war against Saddam. That promise proved more trustworthy than what the French were telling the Americans until January 2003.

The other part of Saddam's Coalition of the Bribed was a network of suppliers, companies and countries that broke the sanctions to help his war machine. Saddam set up front companies that worked with foreign governments, and helped him to buy embargoed goods, whether for conventional weapons or for programs that could be used for WMD. The Syrian government, which is now helping terrorists in Iraq, was a key partner in sending banned items to Iraq.

Thanks to his own coalition, Saddam was able to plead poverty even while building palaces, to claim he was WMD-free even as he retained his WMD ambitions and know-how.

Saddam understood what the political partisans do not: Getting rid of the stockpiles was not the end of the story, just a holding action.

Despite 12 years of sanctions and nearly eight years of inspections, Duelfer reports that Saddam as of April 2003 could have produced deadly mustard gas in months and highly toxic nerve agents within a couple of years. And while U.N. inspectors were still in Iraq, Saddam's scientists were performing deadly experiments on human guinea pigs in secret labs.

All Saddam needed was more time — a few more years of Oil-for-Food, and the sanctions would have vanished in all but name. With his Coalition of the Bribed providing diplomatic cover and vital supplies, he could have re-started WMD production whenever it suited him.

Saddam was determined one day to threaten us again. Fortunately, there was another coalition led by the United States that decided that his time was up.

– Andrew Apostolou is director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.