Home > 26 in 52, General > Failure at every level

Failure at every level


Good Intentions Corrupted: The Oil for Food Scandal And the Threat to the U.N.

by Mark Califano and Jeffrey Meyer

After reading this book, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to read the entire Independent Inquiry Committee report. This book is fairly brief summary of the findings of the U.N.’s independent investigation into the oil-for-food scandal. In it’s roughly 250 pages you get a picture of what has to be the worst management and oversight job ever. You’re confronted with tales of missed opportunities, corruption, and negligence on page after page.

It’s hard to be surprised that Iraq attempted to circumvent the sanctions and corrupt the oil-for-food program. We all know the horror stories of that regime and corruption is nothing next to them. They seemed to have tried what you’d expect: bribe top officials (i.e. the Secretary General, though they appear to have failed), “surcharges” on oil contracts, kickbacks on humanitarian contracts, smuggled oil, sketchy oil allocations to important people, etc. Iraq succeeded at all of those and it’s not surprising. However, the scale at which they succeeded and the scale of the failure of oversight is remarkable. Top officials literally refused to do their job. Officials like Benon Sevan, the director of the program. He was receiving oil allocations from Iraq on the side, while essentially refusing to investigate charges of kickbacks and illegal surcharges. It’s absolutely pathetic. The 661 committee, the committee set up to oversee the program (notable members being France, Russia, and the U.S.), failed miserably as well. Russia stonewalled most oversight and restrictions on Iraq, probably due to state energy companies being the biggest buyers of Iraqi oil. The U.S. and Britain made some noises, but even they were more concerned with looking out for “dual-use” goods than actually overseeing the program. Describing one remarkable incident, the authors detail how the U.S. seems to have essentially turned a blind eye to oil smuggling by Iraq to Jordan.

As I said, failure at every level. The book wraps up with a list of recommendations, some of which, according to Paul Volcker’s introduction, have been implemented. Several key players in the scandal have been indicted. So, there is hope. Califano and Meyer make an admittedly dry subject interesting and easy to understand, thankfully. The book moves quickly enough and has just the right amount of detail to allow to understand the issues, but not get lost in them. No small task considering the subject matter. This is for all intents the definitive account of the oil-for-food scandal. It’s not pretty and it presents great challenges to the U.N. I can only hope they’re met.

Categories: 26 in 52, General
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