The UN Oil-for-Food Program: Who Is Guilty?

The Management of the United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme (five volumes)

a report by the Independent Inquiry Committee into the United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme
Paul A. Volcker (Chairman), Richard J. Goldstone (Member), and Mark Pieth (Member).
2,160 pp., available at

Manipulation of the Oil-for-Food Programme by the Iraqi Regime (one volume)

a report by the Independent Inquiry Committee into the United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme
Paul A. Volcker (Chairman), Richard J. Goldstone (Member), and Mark Pieth (Member).
2,160 pp., available at

Paul Volcker
Paul Volcker; drawing by David Levine

The shadow of potential disasters, some global in scope, mostly man-made in origin, hangs heavy over the fifth year of the new millennium. There is a widespread feeling that our planet is out of sorts—maybe out of control—and that there is little sign of the leadership or strategy that might get it going in the right direction again. The desire for wholehearted international action that could at least slow down a universal catastrophe like global warming is lacking. Expediency rules the policies of most of the governments mainly responsible, although it is encouraging that several governments, the governors of at least ten states in the United States, and a number of major corporations are beginning to take steps to curb carbon emissions on their own. Nonetheless, it seems still to be widely accepted that the short-term interests of the economy and the industrial sector outweigh the need to avert a global disaster that will, in time, blight the lives of billions of people, and animals as well.

Thomas L. Friedman wrote in a recent article about the political situation in the United States:

It is the yawning gap between the huge problems our country faces today…and the tiny, fragile mandate that our democracy seems able to generate to address these problems that is really worrying.1

Reading the final declaration of the September 2005 summit meeting at the United Nations, which brought 155 heads of state and government to New York, one might reach a similar conclusion about the world in general. International politics, as reflected in the United Nations, in spite of the efforts of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, now largely concern compromise and half-measures. The North–South difference has succeeded the forty-year East–West deadlock as a brake on international policy and action.2 National self-interest and short-term thinking seem, for the time being at least, to have overcome practical idealism and an urgent sense of common purpose.

It is hardly surprising that the United Nations,3 originally the embodiment of practical idealism on an international scale, is not thriving in such an atmosphere. In June 1945, when the representatives of fifty states signed the Charter at San Francisco, the idea of a new world inspired a sense of optimism and a spirit of enthusiasm. It was to be a world where the ideals and principles of the Charter would be paramount. The victorious wartime alliance was widely and confidently expected to live on indefinitely as the backbone of the future peace. With the possible exception of a very few American, British, and Soviet officials, the delegates at San Francisco had never heard of nuclear weapons. Nor had they heard of the balance of terror, the cold war, interdependence, environmental degradation, the population explosion, the information revolution, globalization, global terrorism, global warming, global poverty, global epidemics, nuclear proliferation, the threat of failed states, and other phenomena that are now part…

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