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Ian Williams | The Nation

Ian Williams

Author Bios

Ian Williams

UN Correspondent

Ian Williams is The Nation's UN correspondent. In addition to his work for the magazine, he frequently comments on world events on a wide variety of radio and TV outlets, including Hardball, The O'Reilly Factor,
Scarborough Country, UN TV and many more.

He is the author of Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776, The Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, The Alms Trade and The UN For Beginners.

For more info on Willliams, go to www.ianwilliams.info

Articles

News and Features

In 2000, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan posed a question to
the Millennium Summit of the UN: "If humanitarian intervention is,
indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how s

The day after Mary Robinson stepped down as United Nations High
Commissioner for Human Rights, forced out by determined pressure from
Washington, George W.

George W. Bush's decision to "involve" the United Nations in his plans
to attack Iraq does not indicate a conversion to multilateralism on the
road to Baghdad. Washington's continuing campaign to neutralize the
International Criminal Court and its disdain for the Kyoto Protocol are
only part of the evidence that this would at best be a very expedient
multilateralism.

There are sound pragmatic political considerations behind the shift to
the UN track. The President's father and James Baker have almost
certainly reminded him that it was Security Council Resolution 678
mandating military action to expel Iraq from Kuwait that was crucial to
winning the bare majority for a war powers resolution on Capitol Hill.
And even Tony Blair, assailed internally by opposition from his own
party and public, and externally by his European colleagues, now wants
some form of UN blessing--or excuse--for the crusade against Baghdad.

So what form will the Administration's use or abuse of the UN take?
There is little or no chance of a Security Council resolution
authorizing invasion to effect a change of regime. While Russia, China
and France have all told Iraq it should admit weapons inspectors, none
of them can countenance explicit support for an enforced removal of the
Iraqi government, which would go against one of the most fundamental
principles in the UN Charter. Instead, diplomats on the Security Council
anticipate a US-inspired resolution setting a deadline--most speak of
four weeks--for Baghdad to admit inspectors unconditionally, probably
warning of "severe consequences" if it does not. The Administration's
nightmare would be Saddam having a belated moment of rationality and
allowing the inspectors in, but it's reasonably confident that Baghdad
will oblige by refusing.

The Administration's confidence seems to be justified. Iraq's current
ambivalent gestures--wanting Hans Blix, head of UNMOVIC, the inspection
unit, to come for talks but still declaring its refusal to admit his
inspectors--is exasperating even some of Iraq's best friends, while the
refusal to admit inspectors for the past two years has eroded the little
support it had from other countries. The Security Council set up UNMOVIC
in 1999 in response to criticisms made about its predecessor, UNSCOM. A
later resolution, 1382, represented the high-water mark of sanity for
the Bush Administration, since it actually mandated the end of sanctions
after the inspectors had completed their timetabled examination and
certification that Iraq was not producing weapons of mass destruction.
In supporting the resolution, Colin Powell went much further than the
Clinton Administration in offering what was termed "light at the end of
the tunnel"--an end to sanctions in return for compliance with
resolutions, rather than the regime change demanded by Clinton's UN
ambassador, Madeleine Albright. UNMOVIC's new inspectors have also been
carefully insulated from the allegations of undue Anglo-American
influence that dogged their predecessors.

It is against this background that the Administration is working hard to
make sure that there is no veto by France, Russia or China--and no doubt
the US determination that Muslim separatists in the west of China are
"terrorists" has helped mollify Chinese opposition. Even French
President Jacques Chirac in his recent statements is moving toward
acceptance of some kind of UN authorization for coercing Iraqi
compliance, while Putin's US-friendly stance suggests that Russian
opposition will be muted.

But even if Washington heads off vetoes, it still needs nine yes votes
to win--and Syria is certain to vote against. For political legitimacy
the British and Americans must win by more than a bare majority, which
is why a diplomat representing one of the ten elected members on the
Security Council said, "We're expecting to feel the grip on our
testicles any day soon"--the traditional US route to hearts and minds in
international forums, and no more so than with this Administration. In
the end, it is likely that Washington will get its deadline, since the
vote will be on Iraqi compliance, not "regime change"--although in a
last act as friends of Iraq the Russians may negotiate a slightly longer
deadline.

Once the United States has its deadline and if Iraq plays into its hands
by defying the UN, then Washington has at least two options. One, which
seems increasingly likely as US diplomacy gets to work on the council
members, is a resolution that in some euphemistic measure calls down
"severe consequences" on Saddam's head if he fails to comply with a
demand to accept inspectors. The alternative would be a simple
determination that Iraq has failed to comply, after which the United
States and Britain will claim authority from the original Gulf War
resolutions to use military means to enforce the inspection and
disarmament demanded by the resolutions.

In both cases, it allows the Administration to shift some of the blame
for "warmongering" onto the UN, as a duty of the global community rather
than as US aggression. Internationally, it transforms what would have
been a flagrant breach of international law--the unilateral overthrow of
a sovereign government--into a move to assert UN authority, the
consequence of which may be the downfall of a little-loved dictator.

Ariel Sharon may yet rescue Saddam Hussein with more assaults on
Palestinians, allowing the Arabs to contrast starkly the different
outcomes of egregious defiance of the United Nations by Israel and Iraq.
Or Iraq's president may yet decide that survival with inspectors is
preferable to martyrdom surrounded by half-finished projects for mass
military mayhem. But it is a reasonable supposition that shooting will
begin in some form sooner or later. And if Bush has his way on Capitol
Hill, sooner than the November elections.

So far this year, US diplomats have secured the removal of Mary
Robinson, High Commissioner for Human Rights; José Bustani, head
of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons; and Robert
Watson, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They were
ousted because they weren't doing what Washington told them to do.

In the line of fire now are UNRWA, the agency that for more than fifty
years has fed and educated Palestinian refugees, and its head, Peter
Hansen; and Secretary General Kofi Annan, once lauded by US Jewish
organizations for opening doors for Israel. Both cases are egregious
examples of blaming the victim.

At the time of Israel's takeover of Jenin, Hansen condemned the refusal
of the Israel Defense Forces to allow ambulances and relief workers into
the camp. He also protested the Israeli use of UNRWA schools as military
posts and interrogation centers and the destruction of the agency's
clinics. Around the same time, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres invited
Kofi Annan to send in investigators. This suggestion was
enthusiastically moved in the Security Council by US ambassador John
Negroponte. Israel promptly announced that it would not accept Robinson,
Hansen and UN Special Representative for the peace process Terje Roed
Larsen as investigators. Then it made it clear that it would not
cooperate with anyone sent by the Secretary General.

By then, Annan himself was under fire. Within a month of becoming
president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish
Organizations, Mort Zuckerman was assailing him and Hansen and declaring
that "UNRWA is the godfather to all terrorist training schools, notably
in Jenin." AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, joined in with a press release
headed "Camps of Terror," alleging that "as the sole agency mandated to
manage the Palestinian refugee camps, UNRWA has effectively turned a
blind eye toward terror activities within the camps.... Inside the
camps, where 99 percent of UNRWA's staff is comprised of locally
recruited Palestinian refugees, food storage facilities and warehouses
have become depots for ammunition and explosives to be used in terror
attacks against Israelis."

That led to a joint call by Tom Lantos, ranking Democrat on the House
International Relations Committee, and Tom DeLay, the GOP whip, for
Congressional hearings on UNRWA, with a suggestion of ending US funding,
which pays for a third of UNRWA operations. Jumping on the bandwagon,
Republican Eric Cantor of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism
repeated the allegations.

Hansen has pointed out that the agency's sole responsibility is
education, health and feeding the refugees: It has never administered
the camps or maintained any police force. He added that from 1967 on,
"We have not received from the Government of Israel any complaint
related to the misuse of any of our installations in the West Bank and
Gaza Strip.... Since October 2000 to-date, and even though hundreds of
UNRWA staff have been detained and subsequently released, the Israeli
authorities have never provided any information or lodged any complaint
with UNRWA concerning the official or private activities of any UNRWA
staff member."

There is a very real fear that Lantos & Co. will soon demand
Hansen's head as the price for continued UNRWA funding. He was recently
reappointed to another term, but so was Bustani just before he got the
boot. Also in his first year of a second term is Kofi Annan, who is
about to produce a report on Jenin mandated by the General Assembly.
Even Israeli government lawyers admit that the IDF breached
international humanitarian law in Jenin, which was why Israel changed
its mind about allowing the inquiry. People close to the Secretary
General are beginning to worry that he will come under increasing attack
in the same spirit of vilifying the messenger, and that the Likud-tinged
alliance with the Christian and conservative right will revive the old
attacks on the UN.

So far, the State Department has been defending UNRWA on Capitol Hill,
and Colin Powell has a close rapport with Annan. But it remains to be
seen how long this outpost of lucidity can hold against the faith-based
foreign policy follies of the rest of the Administration and many
members of Congress.

More than the much-reviled products of Big Tobacco, big helpings and Big Food constitute the number-one threat to America's children, especially when the fare is helpings of fats, sugars and salt. Yet the nation so concerned about protecting kids from nefarious images on library computers also
allows its schools to bombard them with food and snack ads on Channel One and to sign exclusive deals with purveyors of habit-forming, tooth-rotting, waist-swelling soft drinks.

Foreigners who arrive in the United States often remark on the national obsessions about food and money. It is perhaps not surprising that a gluttonous mammon would rule the federal regulators of our food chain, but Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University, confesses that she has heard few of her nutritionist colleagues discuss the cardinal point: "Food companies will make and market any product that sells, regardless of its nutritional value or its effect on health."

Nestle goes on to demonstrate that not only do food companies use traditional corporate checkbook clout with Congress to insure their unfettered right to make money; they also co-opt much of the scientific and nutritional establishment to aid in their efforts. For example, the omnipresent "milk mustache" advertisements often show blacks and Asians--precisely those who are most likely to be lactose-intolerant. But then "science" rides to the rescue: There are a lot more research dollars shunted to those arguing that lactose intolerance is not a problem than there are for those who think otherwise. In fact, the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine sued to annul the federal dietary guidelines, which recommended two to three servings of milk products daily; six of the eleven people on the voting committee had received research grants, lectureships or other support from the food industry.

Here Nestle wobbles a little in her argument, however. She waves the standard of science on behalf of the Food and Drug Administration when it comes to food supplements and herbal medicines, but devalues the "science" as well by revealing the conflicts of interest among researchers and regulators. Science is often up for sale. Researchers go to the food corporations for the same reason that bandits rob banks: That's where the money is, not least since the FDA's own research funding is controlled by Congressional committees in charge of agriculture, whose primary aim is hardly to promote dieting--it is the force-feeding of agribusiness with federal funds. Indeed, Nestle concedes, "USDA officials believe that really encouraging people to follow dietary guidelines would be so expensive and disruptive to the agricultural economy as to create impossible political barriers."

The dietary guidelines Nestle is referring to were monumentalized in the famous "food pyramid" familiar to every primary school student. But the pharaohs finished theirs in less time than it took the FDA to pilot its version past the army of lobbyists who resented the hierarchical implication that some foods were healthier than others. As a whistleblower on the FDA advisory committee that was drawing up the guidelines, Nestle is well qualified to recount the obstacles it faced.

In fact, many people did become more health-conscious as a result of such guidelines, but as Nation readers know, practice does not always match theory. Much of Food Politics reveals how the food industry has seized upon the marketing possibilities of consumers' safety concerns and perverted them by adding supplements to junk foods and then making health claims for the products.

Food is an elemental subject, on a par with sex and religion for the strength of people's beliefs about it. Otherwise rational people have no difficulty believing the impossible during breakfast, where their stomachs are concerned. Big Food relies on that snake-oil factor, the scientific illiteracy of most consumers. For example, marketers are happy with the advice to eat less saturated fat, since most buyers won't recognize it when it's drizzled across their salad. But advice to eat less of anything recognizable stirs up serious political opposition.

Federal dietary guidelines recommending that we "eat less" were thinned down to suggesting that we "avoid too much," which metabolized into "choose a diet low in..." And so on. For example, Nestle relates how in 1977 the National Cattlemen's Association jumped on Bob Dole's compromise wording on reducing red meat in the diet and increasing lean meat consumption: "Decrease is a bad word, Senator," the cattlemen warned him. The cowboys effectively corralled the McGovern committee on dietary guidelines: "Decrease consumption of meat" was fattened into "choose meats, poultry and fish which will reduce saturated fat intake."

Sometimes the more potential for harm, the more it seems likely that a product's positive--or putative--health benefits will be touted. We get vitamin-supplemented Gummi Bears and, what provokes Nestle's justifiable ire most, Froot Loops. This marshmallow blasted "cereal...contains no fruit and no fiber" and "53% of the calories come from added sugar," she inveighs. The perfect breakfast complement to a twenty-ounce bottle of cola that will be downed in school? Such pseudo-foods occupy the very top of the food pyramid, which characterizes them as to be used sparingly, or rather, only use if you have good dental insurance.

As Nestle points out, health warnings on alcohol and tobacco have done little to stop consumers. But picture a tobacco company allowed to sell cigarettes as "healthier" or "with added vitamins." (Indeed, she details a campaign by the alcohol companies to get Congress to allow them to market their products as healthy elixirs until Strom Thurmond's religious principles outweighed his conservatism enough for him to help shoot down the proposal.)

I was mildly surprised that Nestle does not comment on the imprecise use of "serving" information on food packaging. As a longtime student of labels, I find that the unhealthiest foods seem to have incredibly small "servings" compared with what consumers actually eat or drink. For the USDA, one slice of white bread or one ounce of breakfast cereal is a "serving" of grain, and nutritional data such as caloric content are rendered "per serving." A cinema-size actual serving of soda may contain 800 calories in sugar, before you get down to the buttered popcorn, not to mention the Big Mac before or after.

Food marketers are hardly breaking people's arms to persuade them to eat this stuff, of course. It is, after all, a great American principle that you can have your cake, eat it and slim down at the same time. What Nestle calls "techno-foods"--those labeled "healthier," "less fat," "lite," "more fiber"--pander to the health consciousness of a generation that will do anything to lose weight and live longer, except eat less.

The ultimate example of food marketing has to be Olestra, the cooking fat that passes through the gut undigested. Its maker, Proctor & Gamble, has spent up to $500 million on it, and spent twenty-seven years of the FDA's time getting various approvals, while it kept trying to remove the mandated health warning that the product could cause cramping, loose stools and block the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. P&G should count its blessings. A Center for Science in the Public Interest report says: "Olestra sometimes causes underwear staining. That phenomenon may be caused most commonly by greasy, hard-to-wipe-off fecal matter, but occasionally also from anal leakage (leakage of liquid Olestra through the anal sphincter)."

By 1998 Proctor & Gamble disingenuously claimed that 250 tons, or four railcarfuls, of fat had not been added to American waistlines. No one claimed it had--what the company meant was that was how much Olestra had been used to fry chips. The public expectations were quite high, though; Nestle says that "people also were disappointed that the chips did not help them lose weight." Indeed, she reports that some ended up with more calories from eating Olestra-fried chips than they would have from other kinds, because they consumed a higher volume, convinced that they were calorie-free, though of course they were not.

But given the amount of money involved and the way food-industry/scientific-community connections are structured, "it is virtually impossible for any nutritionist interested in the benefits and risks of Olestra to avoid some sort of financial relationship with P&G unless one systematically refuses all speaking invitations, travel reimbursements, honoraria and meals from outside parties," Nestle observes.

In yet another case of Big Food getting its way, Nestle chronicles how the State Department came to declare that signing the World Health Organization/UNICEF international code on marketing of baby formula would flout the Constitution. "Inasmuch as this explanation strains credulity," Nestle suggests, the real reason was lobbying by US formula companies. The formula makers are fighting a war of attrition against mother's milk, in other words, not just here but internationally.

A more recent case involves the coalition that forced the FDA to allow claims of benefits from untested herbal supplements. I wish Nestle had gone into more detail about the sociology of this mélange of New Age alternative-medicine users, libertarian types and those who mistrust the medical establishment. Groups like Citizens for Health and the Corporate Alliance for Integrative Medicine rallied behind the rapidly growing corporations to ram a suppository up the FDA and its power to control sales of what on occasion have proven to be fatally flawed "alternative" remedies for everything from impotence to Alzheimer's. As she quotes an FDA commissioner, "[We] are literally back at the turn of the century, when snake oil salesmen made claims for their products that could not be substantiated." She reports claims that 12 percent of users of herbal medicines, or about 12 million people, suffer from some kind of adverse effect.

People may feel better when they take supplements, but should health officials use "feelings" as a basis for regulatory measures, she asks? Or should the FDA instead "take the lead in reenergizing a crucial phase of its basic mission to promote honest, rational scientific medicine by vigorously combating its opposite"?

Many people may want to know what "science" is. Is it corporate-sponsored research, or the AMA defending its professional turf with the same vigor with which it has traditionally fought "socialized medicine"? Nestle shows how the American Academy of Pediatrics tried to insure that highly profitable baby formula flowed through its hands and rallied against direct sales to mothers. Was that concern for the "client" or concern for professional prerogatives?

Perhaps Nestle should have been more polemical. The food supplement row raised the question of "whether irreparable damage has been done to the ability of our federal regulatory system to ensure the safety of foods and supplements and to balance public health interests against the economic interests of corporations," she writes. But her own reporting suggests that the barbarians are already inside the gates and forcing their wares on the gullible.

Nestle sees no magic bullet to retrieve the situation. She wants "some federal system to guarantee that all those products on the shelves are safe and effective," and she asks, "Shouldn't there be some regulatory framework to control patently absurd or misleading claims?" To answer that in the affirmative is not necessarily the same as agreeing that the FDA is the best agency, certainly in its present form, nor that the AMA and similar organizations are in the corner of good science. The FDA's record does not inspire confidence, which is one of the reasons the herbalists' revolt was so successful in Congress. Its arrogance often matches its ignorance. While reading this book I went to a small British-owned cholesterol shop in Manhattan (pork pies, etc.). Its owner can't import kippers because the FDA does not recognize them as food. His first shipment of a brand of British Band-Aids was held on suspicion of being a soup, and when that confusion was finally cleared up, the FDA demanded of him a medical-goods import license.

I would like to hear more about how the FDA could be made more responsive and more efficient. It seems that in their present form, the regulatory bodies need some means of democratic oversight to check bureaucracy and to weigh problems of undue influence from the producing industries. Nestle details problems we've come to see elsewhere: the revolving door between civil servants, Congressional staff and industry. She also suggests rules--"a higher and stronger 'firewall'" between regulatory agencies and industry to inhibit the easy career glide from poaching to gamekeeping and back again--and she is entirely correct that the last bodies that should be overlooking FDA funding are the Congressional agriculture committees, which are dedicated to the prosperity of agribusiness.

Otherwise, Nestle's wish list ranges from sensible to Mission Impossible: tighter labeling rules so people can see exactly what they are consuming. A ban on advertising of junk foods in schools, especially candies and soft drinks with high sugar content. Sumptuary taxes on soft drinks as well--sure to be opposed bitterly by the lobbyists. If alcohol and tobacco advertisements cannot be allowed on children's TV, why allow advertising of foods that promote obesity and future health ills on a par with them?

At first glance, Nestle's call for an ethical standard for food choices for nutritionists and the industry seems highly idealistic; but ten years ago, who would have foreseen Philip Morris's berating of state governments for not spending their tobacco settlement money on the pledged anti-child-smoking campaigns? Already, more and more scientific journals are demanding disclosure of conflicts of interest for papers submitted.

Nestle does not touch the subject directly, but who knows, maybe campaign finance reform really will cut indirectly the pork in the political diet and the crap in the school lunches. However, it will be a hard push. Educating the public is a start, and Food Politics is an excellent introduction to how decisions are made in Washington--and their effects on consumers. Let's hope people take more notice of it than they do of the dietary guidelines.

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