Lessons from Oil for Food

The final independent audit report on the UN’s Oil for Food program was released yesterday—Abu Aardvark has a summary. The report found that Benon Sevan, the administrator in charge, was incompetent and likely corrupt. Secretary General Kofi Annan, meanwhile, gets some heat for his poor oversight, but the inquiry doesn’t find enough evidence to definitively tie him to his son Kojo’s shady dealings.

Saddam Hussein’s regime did skim off a fair bit of money by manipulating Oil for Food—but only about one-seventh as much as it did through outright smuggling, most of which was done through American allies, especially Turkey and Jordan. (And the United States prevented the UN subcommittee responsible for monitoring abuses from dealing with this matter.) And in the case of Oil for Food contract abuses, as the saying goes, it takes two to tango. At the insistence of the United States, Iraq was allowed to designate the contractors with which it wanted to do business. If the companies chosen were willing to be corrupt, well, that’s their fault too

Right-wing commentators have relished using the Oil for Food investigation as an anti-U.N. battering ram. But the program, troubled as it was, undoubtedly saved many, many lives. Those concerned about alleviating suffering under sanctions regimes shouldn’t immediately discard Oil for Food as model for future attempts. If, as a consequence of the Iraq mess, the US becomes more averse to intervening militarrily, sanctions will again become a major foreign policy tool. Finding ways to lessen their impact on the citizens of targeted nations is too important a goal to give up on.