It’s Time to Restore Kofi Annan’s Reputation

The United Nations’ longest-running saga, the oil-for-food imbroglio, reached a critical point when Paul Volcker issued his final report on the tawdry episode. His findings may now lead to the prosecutions of the various corporations and individuals involved. All of this is to the good. But, meantime, what about the collateral damage to the key figure in this investigation, namely U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan?

A fair reading of Mr. Volcker’s conclusions is that Mr. Annan not only did not have a central role in this lamentable affair but also bore scant responsibility at all from the onset. Instead, the one nation that shoved the inquiry forward from the beginning was also most culpable: the United States. Yet Mr. Volcker’s investigation still places much of the onus for this troubling event on the U.N. Secretariat’s office.

Let’s review the facts. Washington was complicit in two ways for what happened. First, starting shortly after the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, it secretly allowed oil to be smuggled from Iraq to two of its allies, Jordan and Turkey (and some to Syria).

Under this arrangement, Saddam Hussein managed to rake in $11 billion illegally (of the $12.8 billion he is estimated to have received unlawfully in the 1990’s and early 2000 from oil-related transactions). Then, under the separate oil-for-food program, which began in 1996, Saddam skimmed off the last $1.8 billion or so (far below original estimates of $4.4 billion) from various contractors. All of those latter deals were approved by the 661 committee set up by the Security Council, on which the U.S. was the most persuasive and powerful actor.

Critics have hammered Mr. Annan for allowing both operations to go ahead without his tight supervision. One must remember, however, that for the Jordan/Turkey undertaking, Washington exclusively controlled the venture and wouldn’t permit any outsider to oversee its activities, so Mr. Annan could do nothing about this smuggling. On the second matter—the oil-for-food program—commentators have assailed Mr. Annan for appointing a smarmy official as head of the U.N. unit carrying out the Security Council’s operations on the ground in Iraq; for permitting Saddam Hussein to select his own trading partners; and for not arranging internal audits of the program’s transactions.

In all three instances, Mr. Annan was essentially blameless. On the directorship of the U.N. Iraq program, Mr. Annan may have selected an inadequate and perhaps venal lieutenant but, in any case, this official had no influence over the contracting process. On the contrary, this Secretariat team alerted the 661 committee to pricing irregularities in Saddam’s contracts over 70 times. But the U.S. government, in the end, never heeded any of its particulars on kickbacks. Instead, it blocked or vetoed over 5,000 contracts solely on the possibility that the goods which Iraq purchased for “humanitarian” reasons might also be used for military purposes.

As for allowing Saddam to choose his own foreign collaborators and not imposing an internal audit, it was the Security Council (with Washington’s assent) that authorized Saddam to pick his own companies and that sidelined internal audits, not the Secretary General. Indeed, Mr. Annan himself set up the Volcker inquest to uncover any transgressions. Mr. Annan did make one serious misstep: not investigating forcefully enough his son’s brief employment at one of the companies participating in the program. Yet there’s no evidence that that case had anything to do with Mr. Hussein’s siphoning off $12.8 billion.

In his report, Mr. Volcker doesn’t delve much into the lucrative smuggling episode, but dwells almost entirely on the oil-for-food project. Mr. Volcker’s explanation for this omission is that the mandate given to him by the U.N. was to examine the oil-for-food program exclusively. But this is a cop-out. Since the media and Congress for the past three years have totally focused on all the boodle wrung from the criminal enterprise with Saddam, the public needed to know all of the relevant details. In particular, Mr. Volcker in his report should have given greater emphasis to the extraordinary size of the rip-offs from the American-backed bootlegging operations.

For Mr. Volcker not to do this is highly misleading and unfair to the Secretary General. The impression has now been left in the public sphere that Mr. Annan’s weak or complicit leadership was responsible for Saddam’s thievery. This has led to the blackening of his reputation by critics who have called him corrupt. These are cruel and libelous accusations. The media disseminated inflammatory reports on so-called U.N. double-dealing without taking the time to examine what was truly going on.

Now that the Volcker probe is over, it is time to recognize Mr. Annan’s essential faultlessness during the ugliest moments of his tenure.

Joe Conason will return to this space next week.