Ian Williams: Untangling the Oil for Food Knot

By Ian Williams

Michael Soussan’s Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy (Nation Books, 2008) is a compelling, fascinating, and humorous account of his years working with the UN’s Oil for Food program. This by no means a definitive account of the program, but rather a personal and highly impressionist view from an insider. But his impressions have the ring of truth for anyone who has observed the UN at close range and even more so for anyone who knows the characters with whom he worked. As a writer, he was blessed, since the Oil for Food program was short on gray bureaucrats and big on distinctively eccentric characters.

In fact, he does not appear to realize just how much the pugnacity and stubborn-ness of his boss, “Pasha” Benon Sevan, may have been critical in getting the program up and running. If he had played by the bureaucratic rules, Iraqis would have been waiting for their rations while memos piled up on desks across the Secretariat.

But eccentricity has its limits. There are echoes of Catch 22 in Soussan’s narrative, not least of which is a female ex-PFC Wintergreen, “Cindy,” the administrative assistant, whose attempt to secure promotion and recognition included fighting a war of bureaucratic attrition that at times almost brought the program (that was feeding the bulk of the Iraqi population) to a halt.

Inexperienced and idealistic, Soussan soon realized that had joined “an organization riddled with internal turf wars, petty office politics, dramatic personal rivalries, and in our case, a shameless competition for control over more money than the UN system had ever seen.”

Outraged by the general insouciance to Saddam’s schemes to bypass the sanctions, Soussan was one of the first to testify about the program in Washington, which did not endear him to his former colleagues. Conservatives used the allegations to attack and weaken Kofi Annan and the UN, at a time when the secretary-general was engaged in navigating through important global initiatives such as the “Responsibility to Protect” and the Millennium Development Goals. Indeed, to this date, there have been more congressional committees investigating Oil-for-Food than looking into the Sub-Prime meltdown, which indicates some distorted priorities.

Soussan broke UN rules by going before a Congressional committee, in doing so compromising the organization’s nominal independence. However, while it is true that Congress had been trying to micro-manage and control the UN for decades, it does not mitigate the fact that Soussan was seething with indignation at the absence of any other redress or forum to redress the wrongs he saw.

However, as Soussan puts it, “This was a whodunit in which most parties involved had ‘Done it.’ A truly multilateral heist. The entire international community had been involved in the fleecing of Iraq.”

Escaping unscarred were swathes of the Russian and French politicians who took Saddam’s dinar, and the U.S. occupation authorities who took some $12 billion of Oil for Food surpluses and spent it without any accounting.

In the end, the only way London and Washington could stop the sanctions wall crumbling entirely was by arranging the Oil for Food program. Soussan clearly outlines its contradictions. The UN had to supervise the entire foreign trade of large oil-producing economy with long and porous borders. At the same time, it had to treat Iraq as a sovereign member state. Its inspectors were accompanied everywhere by operatives of one the most savage and clumsy secret services in the world. Locally hired Iraqi spies ran the UN office and, most critically, as Soussan points out, the mailroom through which all the faxes and other transmissions passed.

Few UN officials in Iraq believed that maintaining punitive sanctions were any part of their mission, not least when they saw London and Washington condoning massive oil smuggling to Jordan and Turkey. And in New York, American diplomats, assisted by Brits, creatively but forcibly interpreted the resolutions and rules for senior staff.

The Oil for Food program staff who actually wanted to feed the people were caught between hostility from Washington to allowing more imports, and the Saddam’s lack of interest in whether his people were fed or not. If UN staff reported the widespread Iraqi evasions, Britain and the United States might have used it to limit the program, and the act of reporting would likely have provoked Iraq into terminating the program by expelling UN staff.

The Volcker Inquiry into the scandal spent $30 million of the surplus itself—and ended up with the dampest squib of a conclusion ever, claiming that Benon “Pasha” Sevan, Soussan’s boss and head of the program, could not explain $160,000 cash transfers over five years, alleging that it must have been kickbacks. Although Sevan admits (and Soussan affirms) that he did indeed suggest recipients for the famous oil vouchers, Volcker’s evidence for actual kickbacks is very circumstantial, and one has to doubt whether the circumstantial evidence would convince a jury outside New York. Sevan was the sole UN person actually fingered by the inquiry. Indeed, it highlights the ridiculousness of the “UN” part of the scandal—a paltry sum set against the untold billions siphoned off by non-UN governments, companies, and individuals.

In fact, the program kept the Iraqis fed—admittedly to a miserable extent, but much less so than if the full sanctions had been maintained. And, as it turned out, sanctions worked. Saddam Hussein abandoned his weapons of mass destruction programs, as the Bush administration belatedly discovered after it invaded.

Soussan seem not to have realized just how much of an explicit anti-UN agenda many of the American media and politicians had—particularly after the majority of UN member states failed to support the invasion. He claims that the Volcker Inquiry and the resulting furor provoked “the most meaningful push for reforms since the UN’s creation.” Sadly, it did no such thing. When nations like the United States want to “reform” the UN, all too often they mean they want to shape it to their own ends, no more, no less.

Which is sad, because Soussan’s amusing and eminently readable book shows that reform is necessary, much of which would entail stopping great power interference in the day-to-day running of the organization and clearing out some of the bureaucratic dead wood.



Ian Williams is the author of Rum: A Social & Sociable History (Nation Books, 2005).

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