Last June UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said of the media coverage of the so-called Oil for Food Scandal, “It’s a bit like lynching, actually.” By December the vigilantes were lining up, swinging their ropes. The neoconservative and paleoconservative assault on him and the UN has been like a slightly slower version of the Swift Boat veterans’ campaign against Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry–right down to the halfhearted and belated disavowals by George W. Bush.
Listening to the cable pundits, you would never suspect that there is no proof at this point that Annan, or indeed anyone else at the UN, did anything wrong. Charges of corruption against UN official Benon Sevan are suspect at best, given that they come via Ahmad Chalabi, who was also the source of the discredited information about Iraq’s illusory weapons, as well as the assurances that Iraqis would greet US and British forces as liberators. Nor is there any evidence that Annan used his influence to give Cotecna, a company that employed his son, the job of monitoring contracts under the oil-for-food program, and no proof that Cotecna did anything illegal or corrupt. Although Annan’s son certainly let his father down by not telling him of Cotecna’s continuing “non-compete” payments to him, paternal resignations in response to the sins of prodigal sons have not been a great American tradition–certainly not under the Bush dynasty.
There are real questions about Saddam Hussein’s oil sales, both inside and outside the oil-for-food program, but all the serious investigations, such as that by the US Government Accountability Office, make it clear that most of the revenue he raised had nothing to do with the UN, and that the UN did nothing without the explicit or implicit support of the United States acting through the Security Council.
The reality is that the current calls for Annan’s head are provoked by his opposition to America’s pre-emptive war in Iraq. On December 4 the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the hometown newspaper of Senator Norm Coleman, who has called for Annan’s resignation, provided perhaps the most succinct explanation of what lies behind the attacks. Describing Coleman’s call as a “sordid move,” the editorial explained: “For months before the election, the right-wing constellation of blogs and talk radio was alive with incendiary rhetoric about Annan and the oil-for-food scandal…. This is really all about Annan’s refusal to toe the Bush line on Iraq and the administration’s generally unilateral approach to foreign affairs. The right-wingers hate Annan and saw in the food-for-oil program a possible chink in his armor. They went after it with a venomous fury.”
The genesis of the oil-for-food program was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which prompted the UN to impose sanctions to prevent Iraq from selling its oil. After the war the sanctions were retained, officially until Iraq complied with the cease-fire terms, particularly on disarmament, although US officials made no secret of the fact that they would veto the lifting of sanctions as long as Saddam remained in power.
In 1996, with sanctions causing dire hardship for ordinary Iraqis, the Security Council authorized the oil-for-food program, under which Iraq could sell its oil on the world markets and use some of the proceeds to buy food and other supplies as long as the cash was deposited in UN-controlled escrow accounts (no less than 30 percent went to pay reparations). Each contract had to be approved by the Security Council’s 661 Committee.