October 19, 2004 | Wall Street Journal (Opinion Journal)

La République des Bananes

Kofi Annan Tries to Explain Away France and Russia's Oil for Food Wrongdoing

Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations, finds it “inconceivable” that Russia, France or China might have been influenced in Security Council debates by Saddam Hussein's Oil for Food business and bribes. “These are very serious and important governments,” Mr. Annan told Britain's ITV News Sunday. “You are not dealing with banana republics.”

This has been Mr. Annan's chief response so far to the extensive documentation cited in the recent Iraq Survey Group report, from the CIA's Charles Duelfer, that under cover of the U.N.'s Oil for Food relief program Saddam was trying to buy up pals on the U.N. Security Council. Mr. Duelfer tells us that under the leaky U.N. sanctions and corrupt Oil for Food program, Saddam had already built the networks and was amassing the resources to rearm himself with weapons of mass destruction as soon as U.N. sanctions were entirely gone.

With the aim of shedding sanctions, Saddam, according to his regime's own records, was throwing billions in business and millions in bribes to France, Russia and, to a lesser extent, China, all veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council. As it happened, sanctions were indeed eroding, and these three nations opposed the decision of the U.S. and Britain that Saddam either had to shape up or be shipped out.

But in Mr. Annan's view, Saddam's oil money had nothing to do with it. Nobody buys the officials of France, Russia and China. They are serious and important.

To be fair, maybe that's how the world would appear to anyone dulled for decades by U.N. diplo-speak–and Mr. Annan has toiled there for 42 years. But in the modern world, the notion that Russia and China in no way qualify as banana republics might be news to the state-muffled media of both countries. It might also surprise readers of the Berlin-based Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks 133 countries by levels of corruption, from best to worst. On that list, China ranks about halfway down, worse than Colombia or Peru and tied for 66th place with Panama, Sri Lanka and Syria. Russia does worse yet, ranked between Romania and Algeria, and tied for 86th place with Mozambique.

France does much better. Though it ranks as more corrupt than the U.S., Israel or Japan, it ties with Spain for a still respectable 23rd place. That makes France one of the most corrupt countries not in the entire world, but merely in Western Europe.

Alas, such dignity may come as cold comfort to the French, given that Mr. Annan did not actually deny that the Chinese, Russians and French had taken big payoffs from Saddam. Mr. Annan merely disputed that the Chinese, Russians and French would have delivered anything in return for the bribes. In other words, they may be corrupt, but at least they weren't honest about it.

But let's be generous. Let's grant Mr. Annan's claim that these are not banana republics. These are countries with nuclear weapons, lively arms industries and permanent seats on the Security Council. These are nations so serious that Saddam found it worthwhile to lavish his graft-filled billions in business upon them, even though Mr. Annan could have told him from the get-go it would make no difference.

That raises another problem, namely Saddam's rich opportunities amid all his bribing for the much-overlooked possibility of blackmail. In countries so serious and important that a U.N. secretary-general would deem their corruption “inconceivable,” such things as reputation and rule of law must surely matter. Which means that once Saddam managed to bribe someone in, say, France, China or Russia, he basically owned that person, and even in his current deposed and imprisoned condition quite possibly still does. Anyone exposed for accepting bribes from Saddam–at least anyone in a serious and important nonbanana republic–could face ruin.

And in any individual instance, Saddam has long had less to fear from exposure than do his partners in graft. When Saddam was tyrant of all Iraq, the discovery that he had bribed someone was hardly likely to derail the mighty engine through which he worked his schemes, the U.N.'s Oil for Food program (the obvious graft didn't stop Mr. Annan from repeatedly urging the expansion of the program). And these days, the worst Saddam might have to fear is that along with charges involving such activities as torture and mass murder, he might also face conviction for white-collar crimes. It is at least worth wondering what counsel Saddam may still keep, and what leverage he may still wield, over anyone of seriousness and importance with whom he did business.

In defending Russia, China and France, Mr. Annan further implied that Saddam's traffic went only to companies, not governments, and therefore could not possibly have swayed state policies. Perhaps Mr. Annan has forgotten that all Saddam's contracts were funneled into Oil for Food via the official U.N. missions of the respective countries. Although earlier this year Mr. Annan and some of his aides were busy excusing Mr. Annan's Secretariat from any responsibility for Oil for Fraud, by way of blaming the U.N. member-state missions, especially those on the Security Council.

Maybe Mr. Annan also forgot that both China and Russia, however nonbanana their status at the U.N., have yet to enter the era of genuine private property rights. In both these nations, there is a hazy line between state and private sector, no fair and impartial rule of law to define that line, and no press free enough to delve deeply into such matters as when, by whom and at what price it might have been crossed. Maybe Mr. Annan also forgot that large business interests, even when private, can wield a certain amount of lobbying clout, even in France.

And maybe he just hasn't had time to read the lists of oil vouchers handed out liberally by Saddam to assorted French former officials and Russian politicians and state entities–alleged bribes now presumably under investigation by the U.N.'s own “independent inquiry” led by former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. Earlier this year, an aggrieved Mr. Annan warned critics of the Oil for Food program to shut up and wait for Mr. Volcker to wend his way toward a final report. Apparently, when it comes to Saddam's biggest clients, Mr. Annan sees no problem with his own policy of pre-emptive exoneration.

In dealing with Saddam, Mr. Annan no doubt had a lot to keep track of. There are many questions yet to be answered about Oil for Food before final blame is parceled out. But if the idea is to save the U.N. itself from becoming the world's biggest banana institution, there are serious and important questions to be asked about why Secretary-General Kofi Annan finds it “inconceivable” that in the U.N.'s core debates, rampant graft might matter.

– Ms. Rosett is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute. Her column appears here and in The Wall Street Journal Europe on alternate Wednesdays.



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