The infamous United Nations Oil for Food program is getting some well-deserved, increasingly skeptical attention as a result of congressional hearings and the report from CIA weapons inspector Charles Duelfer’s Iraq Survey Group. Every aspect of this apparently far-reaching and profoundly corrupt program deserves to be exposed. But it should be remembered that it was developed in response to an economic sanctions regime that was predictably ineffective and inexcusable in itself.
Before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, international economic sanctions were imposed on Iraq, largely at the behest of the United States, through the United Nations. Not surprisingly, these sanctions failed to induce Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait.
Economic sanctions, as Dr. Ivan Eland, Director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at Oakland’s Independent Institute points out in his new book, “The Empire Has No Clothes,” almost never achieve their purported goal of influencing a reprehensible regime to stop doing bad things with coercion short of war. Instead, sanctions generally punish the people who are already victims of the regime in question (see Cuba since 1961) while giving the ruler an opportunity to blame all the peoples’ problems on the nasty sanctions imposed by (usually) the “satanic” United States. Sometimes sanctions even reinforce the power of corrupt rulers.
Much of the above happened after sanctions were imposed on Iraq. After a few years, it became apparent that the sanctions were not seriously undermining Saddam’s power, but were imposing more suffering on the already suffering Iraqi people. So the U.N. established the Oil for Food program, designed to allow Iraq to sell a limited amount of oil abroad and use the proceeds strictly to pay for food, medicine and infrastructure maintenance.
As Charles Pena, a foreign policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, said, however, “Even if the program had been run with scrupulous honesty, at the other end Saddam’s regime was going to control the proceeds. There was no way to ensure that none of the money was spent on other projects.”
As it turned out, the program was not run with scrupulous honesty. All kinds of people, probably including some at the U.N. or with U.N. connections — Kofi Annan’s son was consultant to a company that won a questionable $4.8 million U.N. contract — skimmed money from the program. The Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, estimated in April that Saddam skimmed “$10.1 billion in illegal revenues” from the program. Besides spending money on palaces, the regime, according to Duelfer’s Iraq Study Group, spent some of this money on military equipment — though not on the fabled weapons of mass destruction. Countries like France and Russia cooperated with Saddam in breaking down the sanctions against weapons sales, and any number of private companies around the world reaped dirty profits.
All this should be investigated and exposed. The U.N. has appointed a commission headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, but its job will be formidable because so many high-ranking people in the U.N. and elsewhere might be implicated. The fact that several congressional investigations are also under way and a few journalistic organizations are on the case is also welcome.
It is important to remember, however, that all the unseemliness was set up by the imposition of sanctions that everybody knew at the time were more about the appearance of “doing something” than any realistic hope of improving Saddam’s behavior.