As I have previously noted, the 'progressive' point to be made about OilyGate is that it was largely a success - after all, the Iraqi people were fed, the sanctions were kept in place, and Saddam was disarmed, right? (How exactly the disarming of Saddam and the sanctions fit in is always left a little vague - I suppose the argument is the humanitarian aid allowed political cover for nations opposed to sanctions to vote in their favor regardless, although the real motive for keeping the sanctions in place indefinitely should be apparent to all but the most willfully ignorant by now).
Today, on ABC's This Week with George Stephanapoulos, Secretary General Kofi Annan trotted out the talking points almost verbatim:
Stephanopoulos: This comes at the end of what you called a horrible year for the United Nations, the shadow of the oil-for-food scandal. Given that, how do you convince the world this time that you can handle an effort on this scale with confidence, with credibility, and without corruption?What's wrong this argument, anyway? Is it not true that Oil-For-Food did real good for the Iraqi people? The point that Annan and his supporters are (in my view, deliberately) failing to address is 'bang for the buck'. Of course, when you spend tens of billions of dollars on some problem, things will improve, even if a huge portion of that was siphoned off into the pockets of fat cats and diplomats. If $100,000 is pledged to help me reduce my credit card debt (to use a slightly exaggerated example), and if only $18,000 makes its way to me, I'm still $18,000 better off than I was. But what of the people (or nations) who paid that money? Will they be satisfied knowing that $82,000 of the $100,000 they provided expressly to help me never found its way to the intended beneficiary?
Annan: I think the oil-for-food issue was a unique issue. It was a unique scheme. Yes, there may have been some corruption. There may have been some mismanagement. But the program achieved its results. It was effective against� The sanctions were effective. Iraq was disarmed. Iraq is well-fed. We will make sure that they get their basic necessities with regards to health and others. And, in fact, the distribution system was so effective that today we use the distribution cards as the basis for voter registration for the elections. So, yes, there were, there has been some wrongdoing, which is being looked into, but we should not forget that it achieved its results.
The UN puts the Total Oil Revenue from Oil-For-Food at $65 billion. Of the $21 billion in Iraqi humitarian aid siphoned off, 'only' $17 billion was stolen during the years of the program. If my math is wrong, someone please correct me, but that's a little over 26% of the total oil revenue to Saddam's cronies. That doesn't include, of course, the administrative overhead, which can amount to 30 or 40% even in legitimate charities, and I suspect must be higher in the UN. Let's assume the UN did a good job on the adminstration, though (against all evidence to the contrary). That $17 - $21 billion dollars could have bought some state-of-the-art medical equipment in abundance, provided computers for Iraqi classrooms, improved sanitation conditions, you fill in the blank. It's a lot of cash down the drain, Kofi - THAT'S the point. Sure the program helped, but so much more should have been done.
In light of the above discussion, the initial criticism of the US tsunami relief efforts begins to make more sense. Why does it matter who controls what, when there are people dying? Let Kofi speak again:
Stephanopoulos: ...could this crisis, as horrible as it is, become an opportunity for the U.N. to prove to the world what it can do?
Annan: It could be, and I would hope so. I would hope so. We want to help the people in need. We want to do it as effectively as possible. We have only one U.N. It's not perfect, but we have to be efficient and effective. And we are going to try to do that.
I'm sure Kofi Annan and George Stephanopoulos did not mean to suggest they wish to score political points off this catastrophe. Had they bothered to examine the meaning of their words more carefully, they surely would have realized the cynicism on display. However, one can't help but wonder how much comfort an Indonesian fisherman who has lost three family members will take in knowing he is doing his part to rehabilitate the image of the UN.