Wednesday, May 09, 2007

You Asked for It

[posted by Callimachus]

It really is a herd over there.

Yesterday, they all stampeded off the cliff over a military mot attributed to an old Rebel from slavery days as a supposed revelation of the racist depravity in the hearts of all Republicans. I wonder what they think whenever they quote the Declaration of Independence.

Today, they left-side blogosphere discovered the U.N. oil-for-food scandal, and erupted with identical choreographed shrieks and jeers -- down to repeating the same lame joke ("side dish of Rice") on a dozen dozen blogs.

Many of these people are more clever than that. I'm an optimist, but I truly believe they are. So why do they insist on trying to do the same lame Atrios imitation day after day instead of finding their own voices? There already is an Atrios.

Maybe while they're at it, they could be bothered to think. That would be fresh, and welcome, too. (There already is an Atrios.) But whether it's Forrest or Oil-for-Food, they have no clue or context. And don't seem to care to find one. That's what happens when you interpret everything entirely in terms of what it can do to your political opponents.

And that scares me. Because these people represent the likely powers that will drive this country for the next four years, at least. They hope for a Democratic sweep in 2008, and I think they'll get it.

Here's what's got them exercised over oil-for-food today:

Chevron, the second-largest American oil company, is preparing to acknowledge that it should have known kickbacks were being paid to Saddam Hussein on oil it bought from Iraq as part of a defunct United Nations program, according to investigators.

The admission is part of a settlement being negotiated with United States prosecutors and includes fines totaling $25 million to $30 million, according to the investigators, who declined to be identified because the settlement was not yet public.

Big Oil is greedy and willing to break the rules when there's a profit to be made. Who knew! This is the routine denouement of a case of corporate bad behavior that's been known (for those who cared to know it) since about 2004. But it's this graph, deep down in the New York Times story, that set the herd a-drooling:

According to the Volcker report, surcharges on Iraqi oil exports were introduced in August 2000 by the Iraqi state oil company, the State Oil Marketing Organization. At the time, Condoleezza Rice, now secretary of state, was a member of Chevron’s board and led its public policy committee, which oversaw areas of potential political concerns for the company.

So Condi was asleep at the switch, I guess. Bad on her. I never sat on a corporate board; I have no idea how it's supposed to work. Nobody on the Left is enlightening me on that today, either. Instead, the story is being treated everywhere as a case of "back at you" aimed, not at Rice, but at the bugaboo of "wingnuts" and "fascists" of the right wing blogosphere, the "Republican noise machine" and the followers of "talking points," which, as our good friends in the comments section here have assured me, includes me.

Part of today's triumphalism is the notion that the right is "silent" over oil-for-food this time, since the scandal apparently now has entangled one of the "neo-cons." [Condi is essentially a realist, but never mind; such distinctions are lost on the herd.]

Well, I'll be more than glad to talk about it, now that you open the door. I used to beat that drum pretty hard, but I gave up on making anyone on the other side listen to it.

Here's a good short introduction:

After the 1991 Gulf War, the U.N. imposed economic sanctions on Saddam's regime. Concerned that the sanctions were hurting the people of Iraq, in 1996 the Security Council established the Iraq Oil-for-Food Program (OFP). Under strict U.N. control, Iraq would be allowed to export oil and import food and humanitarian supplies.

Over time, the program grew. Over seven years, $65 billion worth of oil was sold through the program and $38 billion of goods was imported into Saddam-controlled Iraq. Inspectors, monitors, and local bureaucrats oversaw oil sales, imports, and distribution of the humanitarian aid. The other $27 billion went to Kuwaiti war reparations, to the UN for administrative costs, and to Kurdish-controlled Iraq.

Saddam evaded and abused the sanctions program as much as possible. He smuggled oil out of Iraq. He demanded kickbacks from both sides of the OFP: purchasers of oil and suppliers of goods. The GAO estimates that he earned $10 billion from smuggling ($5.7Bn) and kickbacks ($4.4Bn).

For years before the 2003 Iraq War, much of this was known, and ignored by the U.N. and the U.S. Indeed, there was constant global pressure to abandon or ease the sanctions; various Security Council Resolutions increased the amount of oil that could be sold and broadened the list of goods that could be imported. In 2001, the OFP did tighten up the oil pricing policy, and thus reduced the margin on the kickbacks required from oil purchasers.

The first major report on the scandal is here (PDF file warning). Here are some excerpts from the summary. The headings here are mine and indicate separate sections in the text:

Saddam's Goals

Saddam’s primary goal from 1991 to 2003 was to have UN sanctions lifted, while maintaining the security of the Regime. He sought to balance the need to cooperate with UN inspections — to gain support for lifting sanctions — with his intention to preserve Iraq’s intellectual capital for WMD with a minimum of foreign intrusiveness and loss of face. Indeed, this remained the goal to the end of the Regime, as the starting of any WMD program, conspicuous or otherwise, risked undoing the progress achieved in eroding sanctions and jeopardizing a political end to the embargo and international monitoring.

The introduction of the Oil-For-Food program (OFF) in late 1996 was a key turning point for the Regime. OFF rescued Baghdad’s economy from a terminal decline created by sanctions. The Regime quickly came to see that OFF could be corrupted to acquire foreign exchange both to further undermine sanctions and to provide the means to enhance dual-use infrastructure and potential WMD-related development.

By 2000-2001, Saddam had managed to mitigate many of the effects of sanctions and undermine their international support. Iraq was within striking distance of a de facto end to the sanctions regime, both in terms of oil exports and the trade embargo, by the end of 1999.

Saddam wanted to recreate Iraq’s WMD capability — which was essentially destroyed in 1991 — after sanctions were removed and Iraq’s economy stabilized, but probably with a different mix of capabilities to that which previously existed. Saddam aspired to develop a nuclear capability — in an incremental fashion, irrespective of international pressure and the resulting economic risks — but he intended to focus on ballistic missile and tactical chemical warfare (CW) capabilities.

Manipulating the U.N.

One aspect of Saddam’s strategy of unhinging the UN’s sanctions against Iraq, centered on Saddam’s efforts to influence certain UN SC permanent members, such as Russia, France, and China and some nonpermanent (Syria, Ukraine) members to end UN sanctions. Under Saddam’s orders, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) formulated and implemented a strategy aimed at these UNSC members and international public opinion with the purpose of ending UN sanctions and undermining its subsequent OFF program by diplomatic and economic means. At a minimum, Saddam wanted to divide the five permanent members and foment international public support of Iraq at the UN and throughout the world by a savvy public relations campaign and an extensive diplomatic effort.

Another element of this strategy involved circumventing UN sanctions and the OFF program by means of “Protocols” or government-to-government economic trade agreements. Protocols allowed Saddam to generate a large amount of revenue outside the purview of the UN. The successful implementation of the Protocols, continued oil smuggling efforts, and the manipulation of UN OFF contracts emboldened Saddam to pursue his military reconstitution efforts starting in 1997 and peaking in 2001. These efforts covered conventional arms, dual-use goods acquisition, and some WMD-related programs.

Once money began to flow into Iraq, the Regime’s authorities, aided by foreign companies and some foreign governments, devised and implemented methods and techniques to procure illicit goods from foreign suppliers.

To implement its procurement efforts, Iraq under Saddam, created a network of Iraqi front companies, some with close relationships to high-ranking foreign government officials. These foreign government officials, in turn, worked through their respective ministries, state-run companies and ministry-sponsored front companies, to procure illicit goods, services, and technologies for Iraq’s WMD-related, conventional arms, and/or dual-use goods programs.

The Regime financed these government-sanctioned programs by several illicit revenue streams that amassed more that $11 billion from the early 1990s to OIF outside the UN-approved methods. The most profitable stream concerned Protocols or government-to-government agreements that generated over $7.5 billion for Saddam. Iraq earned an additional $2 billion from kickbacks or surcharges associated with the UN’s OFF program; $990 million from oil “cash sales” or smuggling; and another $230 million from other surcharge impositions.

Still with me, anti-war friends? Or have you drifted back to see what Atrios is miffed about now?

"By mid-2000," the report concludes, "the exponential growth of Iraq’s illicit revenue, increased international sympathy for Iraq’s humanitarian plight, and increased complicity by Iraqi’s neighbors led elements within Saddam’s Regime to boast that the UN sanctions were slowly eroding. In July 2000, the ruling Iraqi Ba’athist paper, Al-Thawrah, claimed victory over UN sanctions, stating that Iraq was accelerating its pace to develop its national economy despite the UN 'blockade.' ”

None of the gleeful posts I read today about the Condi graph in the Times story bothered to explain oil-for-food. Why should they bother, after all? They wrote off the whole scandal years ago as an irrelevant and overblown sideshow that only excited the "wingnuts" and "fascists" of the right wing blogosphere, the "Republican noise machine" and the followers of "talking points."

Even now, when they want to find it temporarily useful, they haven't a clue what it is or what it means. Here's Atrios himself trying to describe it:

It's almost a forgotten chapter of blog wingnuttia, that oil for food scandal which was going to take down every politician in the world that the wingnuts didn't like, or something.

It's hard to disguise the contempt I feel for people who write like that. Obviously, I'm not trying to disguise it.

The scandal is an awful blow to exactly the system of internationalism that is the anti-war left's alternative answer to George W. Bush's bumbling unilateralism. Oil-for-food revealed Saddam's easy ability to subvert and corrupt the United Nations. And many of the global political figures who railed against the American campaign to contain, and then to overthrow Saddam -- the same nations and leaders who still hold the misty-eyed admiration of the anti-war left -- subsequently were implicated in the scandal. And very few of them have paid any price for it, either legally or politically.

And that, it seems to me, ought to be a grave concern to exactly the people who are laughing so hard today.

As the "Friends of Saddam" site, which used to monitor the scandal, puts it:

Why is the OFP Scandal Important?

It is not just about which bureaucrat had his hand in the till. Nor is it just about which company slipped a dictator a few (or many) bucks.

It is about the UN and its legitimacy. During the run-up to the Iraq war, George Bush's opponents accused him of many misdeeds. Chief among them was "going to war without the UN." But if, the UN was, in fact, Saddam's enabler, if the UN Secretariat was effectively on Saddam's payroll, if important people in major antiwar countries were likewise beholden to the Iraqi regime, then that casts a wholly different light on "unilateralism."

And that is precisely why so many people, on both sides of the global debate, weigh in strongly on the Oil-for-Food scandal.

Saddam shamelessly shook down the program to fuel his power machine. He lined his pockets and pimped his sons' palaces while his people suffered. Leading figures in France, Britain and Russia adamantly opposed the American bid to topple the dictator while taking his money under the table. Among the subpoenaed companies was a Swiss-based firm that employed U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's son, Kojo, and which was in charge of monitoring goods entering Iraq. Saddam's shenanigans would have run up red flags for anyone on the scout for evidence of graft. But you can't see with your eyes closed. And Kofi Annan's Secretariat, raking in a 2.2% commission on Saddam's oil sales, never systematically examined Saddam's contracts.

Sometimes I try to see past the purely negative and reactionary posts of the anti-war left writers, to imagine the positive worldview of someone who is really horrified by the U.S. war on Saddam, on the basis of the doctrine of a pre-emptive strike, on the unilateral militaristic solution to what, in this person's view, should have been solved by international consensus and world-governing institutions. I'm trying to picture the alternative world that this person wishes to achieve, in which there's a better solution than Bush's to a problem such as Saddam presented. I'm assuming this person is a realist, not a blinder-clad Bush-hater who thinks there are no real problems in the world except That Man in the White House.

And I have to think that person's vision of a working world includes a belief in sanctions systems, such as the one the U.N. attempted to use to contain Saddam's weapons programs. And I have to think that person, reading the Duelfer report, would be more concerned with the utter failure of that system, in the case of Iraq; he or she would be even more concerned with that failure than with some recycled indignation over the bad guesses made by U.S. intelligence agencies in 2002.

If they loathe the greed in American capitalism, and especially the oil companies that live at the top of that food chain, wouldn't he or she be just as indignant over the greed of foreign (often nationalized) oil companies, and the contribution of that greed to the fall into war? The writer Stephen Handelman was. He wrote, on reading the Duelfer Report, of how greed ruined the embargo on Iraq:

Saddam was able to conduct his deception with the active help of other countries, which, in many cases, profited from the veil of illusion Saddam threw up around himself, and who thus helped make a mockery of the U.N. sanctions. It is only fair to conclude as well that those countries, by acting as enablers for Saddam's deceptions, helped contribute to the tense climate that led to war — if not helping to provoke the war itself.

How? The report reveals an underground web of bribes and kickbacks through which Saddam used the U.N. Oil For Food program to purchase the arms he thought he needed to rebuild his shattered weapons complex once the sanctions ended, while buying the support of certain countries for an end to the sanctions themselves.

The global network included Russia, France, Jordan, Belarus, Syria, Yemen and North Korea. It roped in powerful politicians and private firms in many parts of the world.

Just one example: Iraq and Belarus created a fictional airline to move weapons parts under the guise of humanitarian aid.

Here's another: Former French interior minister Charles Pasqua, according to the report, received vouchers for nearly 11 million barrels of oil on the understanding he would influence the French government to push for lifting Iraq sanctions.

In 2002 alone, Iraq concluded 35 illicit arms deals.


"Iraq was designing missile systems with the assumption that sanctioned material would be readily available," said the report.

The report's findings will — or should — force a rethinking in the White House. But they put a heavy burden on all U.N. member states to re-examine sanctions policy.

Sanctions can be some of the most effective instruments short of war to weaken unjust or "rogue" governments. But only if they are enforced transparently.

If we believe in them, we should do everything possible to ensure that they are never abused so blatantly again. That means pursuing criminal penalties against those who did so in Iraq.

"Knowledge of your opponent's weakness is a weapon in itself," Saddam told his captors.

The few weapons Saddam actually possessed were in the end his most effective: the duplicity, greed and dishonesty of the global community.

Shouldn't that be as important to these people as Condi's corporate sins? Perhaps, just perhaps, more important? Because in two years, assuredly, she will be no longer with us. But the corrupted world institutions, the rogue nation problem represented by Saddam, and the tactics used effectively against American power in the Middle East the last four years, still will be here.

And you're in charge next.