Lynch Mob's Real Target Is the U.N., Not Annan

By James Traub
James Traub is writing a book about Kofi Annan and the U.N.

Los Angeles Times

December 3, 2004

Kofi Annan must be wondering whose dog he shot. A right-wing mob is gathering around him, howling for his head. And why? Because the gentle and generally accommodating leader of the United Nations has, as New York Times columnist William Safire recently put it, "brought dishonor on the Secretariat of the United Nations" through mismanagement of the U.N.'s "oil-for-food" scandal. The secretary-general must have been surprised indeed to learn that Safire and the anti-U.N. crowd hold the organization's honor so dearly.

The scandal itself is quite grave. The oil-for-food program was created in the mid-1990s to mitigate the human toll of international sanctions on the Iraqi people, but it was misused from the start. The blithely cynical administration of the program will almost certainly turn out to have been the worst managerial catastrophe in the U.N.'s history.

Saddam Hussein manipulated the program to steal billions of dollars, and there is every reason to believe that he bribed political and business leaders to look the other way. He may even have bribed a leading U.N. official, though that official was not named Kofi Annan.

Investigators have not yet determined who, if anyone, committed criminal acts, nor whether Annan's son, Kojo, traded on the family name to help a company he worked with win a major contract administering the program. Of course, the vigilantes at Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page won't be deterred by that hoary principle known as "innocent until proven guilty." But Kofi Annan's critics are not just jumping the gun; they are barking up the wrong tree.

The oil-for-food program was developed and directed not by U.N. civil servants but by the U.N. Security Council, as are all the organization's sanctions regimes. The diplomats who ran the program worked for the council's member states, including the United States and the four other permanent members. And they ran it according to the interests of those states, with the U.S. and Britain determined to prevent Iraq from importing items that could be used for military purposes and the French, Russians and Chinese equally determined to give the Iraqis the benefit of every doubt. Preventing theft was at the bottom of everyone's to-do list. The U.S. government had dozens of people monitoring the contracts but didn't hold back a single one on the grounds of corruption, price irregularities or kickbacks.

The secretariat deserves some portion of the blame, both for failing to sound the alarm over Iraqi swindling and for a slow and grudging reaction when the allegations first surfaced earlier this year. But the idea that this constitutes a firing offense for the secretary-general — especially when the call is coming from the folks who rallied to Donald Rumsfeld's side after Abu Ghraib — is hard to take seriously. I suspect that Annan's persecutors are after something else: not the man, but the institution itself.

It's not news, of course, that conservatives dislike and distrust the U.N. But the debate over a resolution authorizing force in Iraq was, for many of them, the last straw. Annan himself played only a very small role in this protracted agony; the Bush administration couldn't get the resolution it wanted because it could not persuade even traditional allies on the Security Council that war was necessary.

And that's just the point: It's not about Annan or "the secretariat." Conservatives were infuriated that the Security Council would withhold the stamp of legitimacy from a war they considered self-evidently just. The incident proved to them, as if they needed more proof, that the U.N. was not a place where the U.S. could transact serious business.

Thus the godsend of oil-for-food. For those who want the U.N. simply to go away, physically as well as politically, the oil-for-food scandal proves that the entire enterprise is irremediable (though this seems tantamount to arguing that the recent spate of corporate accounting frauds demonstrates the failure of free-market capitalism). What conservatives cannot accept, at bottom, is the premise that an international body, even one over which the United States exercises enormous sway, should be allowed to pass on the legitimacy or legality of American actions. And if you can't accept that, you can't accept the U.N.

It's striking that the Bush administration, for all its notorious unilateralism, has not yet joined the chorus (though neither has it tried to stem it). Annan infuriated administration officials when he called the Iraq war illegal and again when he argued against the recent assault on Fallouja. But just now, the administration finds itself needing the U.N. and its vexed legitimacy in Iraq, where the organization is helping set up the impending elections. The administration wants more U.N. election advisors, not fewer. Perhaps, secretly, it also wants a bigger U.N. role so that it can blame the organization if and when the elections fail. But that too makes the organization indispensable. It makes you wonder what the mob would do with Annan's silver scalp if they ever got it.