Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A Confederacy of Dunces

From the Telegraph today:

The Palestinian-born wife of George Galloway, the Respect MP, is accused today of receiving $149,980 (about £100,000) derived from the United Nations Iraqi oil-for-food programme.

A report by an investigative committee of the United States Senate says the money was sent to the personal account of Amineh Abu Zayyad in August 2000.

The report includes bank records showing a paper trail from Saddam's ministries to Mrs Galloway. It states that the Iraqis handed several lucrative oil-for-food contracts to the Jordanian businessman Fawaz Zureikat, an old friend of the Galloways. A month later, on Aug 3, 2000, Mr Zureikat allegedly paid $150,000 minus a bank commission of $20 from his Citibank account number 500190207 into Mrs Galloway's account at the Arab Bank in Amman.

The senate team also says that a $15,666 payment had been made on the same date to a Bank of Scotland account belonging to Mr Galloway's spokesman, Ron McKay. Last night Mr McKay said he had no recollection of the alleged payment.

The oil-for-food programme was designed to help Iraq's needy but was misused by Saddam to reward friends and allies.

And here's a couple from the BBC:

UN report deals serious damage

Each time Paul Volker delivers one of his interim reports, the United Nations receives another body blow and its tarnished reputation suffers yet again.

This was the third of Mr Volcker's reports and in many ways the most damning yet. Until now there was the strong whiff of scandal, but no direct blame.

This report, though, pointed the finger straight at the former head of the oil-for-food programme, Benon Sevan. It concluded that Mr Sevan "corruptly benefited" from his role with the UN - that he had received kickbacks worth almost $150,000 from a small company called Amep, who he had helped profit from the sale of Iraqi oil.

Mr Sevan denies the allegation and insists he received that money from his aunt.

The Annans: Story of a father and son

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan must have hoped that a March 2005 report into the Iraqi oil-for-food programme would help put his ship back on an even keel - but it turns out there are still squalls ahead.

The report effectively cleared him of corruption, saying there was "no evidence" of "improper influence by the secretary general in the bidding or selection process" under which the Swiss company Cotecna was chosen to run the programme.

But three months later, new memos have surfaced which appear to suggest that a top Cotecna executive not only met Mr Annan days before the firm won the UN contract - but that he told colleagues their firm could "count on the support" of Mr Annan's "entourage".

That may muddy the conclusions drawn by the earlier report, which found that the evidence was "not reasonably sufficient" to show that Mr Annan had known about the Cotecna bid which came when his son, Kojo, was employed by the company.

Even that report found him guilty of complacency. The chairman of the inquiry, Paul Volcker, a former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, said there had been an "inadequate" investigation by Mr Annan's office into the links between Kojo and Cotecna after it was given the contract.

The problem for Mr Annan, the report found, was that his own son did not tell him the truth. It turned out that Kojo's employment by Cotecna as a "consultant" in fact continued after the contract was granted.

Now Galloway may have known nothing about the money, Annan may have known nothing about who his son worked for, and Sevan may have got the money from his aunt.

But why isn’t Michael Moore making a film about this? There’s so much suspicion of corruption, nepotism and whitewashing to hand that he’d barely need to pad it out with the usual insinuation, out-of-context quoting, pointless stunts and bullying interviews with vulnerable/senile/grief-stricken subjects.

Except that isn’t an interesting question. Moore is just a dunce. The interesting question is, why is there a Confederacy of Dunces?

How did it come to be that people will believe any old rubbish so long as it hints at American imperialism or corruption and conspiracy in the black heart of the Bush administration (try this one on your friends: “of course, they only started the war so that McDonald’s could open up a chain in Baghdad”), yet Kofi Annan enjoys the beatific status of a Nelson Mandela, a Mahatma Gandhi or a Princess Diana, while the bodged and fudged pronouncements of the UN, the committee to end all committees, are treated as if they come on tablets of stone from Mount Sinai?

How did it come to be that this year’s recipients of the Nobel prizes for Peace and Literature were respectively the useless but American-baiting head of United Nations nuclear agency Mohamed ElBaradei, and one Harold Pinter?

And above all, how did the belief that the military removal of a genocidal dictator was unjustified and immoral become not only widely held by many otherwise sane people, but passionately, even rabidly, argued, protested and demonstrated about?

Christopher Hitchens poses this question in his barnstorming essay Democratization, Iraq: A War to Be Proud Of:

This state--Saddam's ruined and tortured and collapsing Iraq--had met all the conditions under which a country may be deemed to have sacrificed its own legal sovereignty. To recapitulate: It had invaded its neighbors, committed genocide on its own soil, harbored and nurtured international thugs and killers, and flouted every provision of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United Nations, in this crisis, faced with regular insult to its own resolutions and its own character, had managed to set up a system of sanctions-based mutual corruption. In May 2003, had things gone on as they had been going, Saddam Hussein would have been due to fill Iraq's slot as chair of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament. Meanwhile, every species of gangster from the hero of the Achille Lauro hijacking to Abu Musab al Zarqawi was finding hospitality under Saddam's crumbling roof.

One might have thought, therefore, that Bush and Blair's decision to put an end at last to this intolerable state of affairs would be hailed, not just as a belated vindication of long-ignored U.N. resolutions but as some corrective to the decade of shame and inaction that had just passed in Bosnia and Rwanda. But such is not the case. An apparent consensus exists, among millions of people in Europe and America, that the whole operation for the demilitarization of Iraq, and the salvage of its traumatized society, was at best a false pretense and at worst an unprovoked aggression. How can this possibly be?

How indeed? In Old Europe, the answer is easy. Anti-Americanism is prevalent enough to be scarcely worth commenting on. In a way, you can hardly blame the French since their media is so overwhelmingly Yankophobic that when the statue of Saddam came toppling down so soon into the campaign there was widespread bewilderment among the French public, who had been continually told that the Coalition was being routed on a daily basis and was being sucked into a ‘quagmire’ to make Vietnam look like a tea-party.

So much for the Europeans, but what about the Not-in-my-name Britons?

In February 2003 a million or so people marched through London in protest against the invasion of Iraq. Why were they protesting against it? Since we already knew what a hell-hole Iraq was, the only conceivable rational arguments could be:

(1) Maintaining the official legal superiority of the UN is more important than any benefits of a military action carried out without the official sanction of the UN;
(2) A war is the worse of two evils, in that the benefits of removing from power a genocidal dictator and introducing democracy to Iraq are outweighed by the blood that will inevitably be shed in a military action that includes bombing and fighting in civilian areas. (This could be further justified by a claim that Saddam could somehow be removed and democracy somehow be given to Iraq peaceably, though nobody seemed to come up with a practical suggestion).

Given this, you might have expected the Great March to be a sombre affair, comprising a set of deeply troubled and deep-thinking people rationally but reluctantly plumping for one bloody evil over another, and supplemented perhaps by a small band of bespectacled legal-technicality nerds swayed by argument (1).

Except it wasn’t. It was a big old jolly face-painted, horn-tooting, whistle-blowing, sing-along street party, led by the usual intellectually-challenged pop stars and made up mostly of Guardian-toting middle-class weekend-warriors too posh to go to the annual May Day riot, and not posh enough to join in with the Countryside Alliance’s jamboree*.

What fun they had, and how indignant they were, how scandalised that Tony Blair barely batted an eyelid at this singular demonstration of the madness of crowds. This is a democracy, why won’t he listen to the people? Bush’s poodle!**

Somehow sane argument got drowned in a Leftist soup of stupidity that has been bubbling up for years. The basic ingredients include a lingering colonial guilt, and more insidiously, a lame-brained cultural relativism that amounts to: “Who are we to judge their culture? Democracy is just a white western construct – these Iraqis are used to tyranny and torture, you know, like wearing burkhas and driving on the other side of the road.” It’s a short hop from the “who are we to say we’re right and they’re wrong?” argument to the “they are right, we’re wrong” one. There’s a certain self-flagellating element in western culture that loves nothing more than to hear that it’s been wicked. Maybe we should blame it on the Fall.

And of course there’s the baggage that comes with Bush: the cringeworthy attempts at public speaking, the little ‘doubleya’ to distinguish him from Daddy, the Born-Again babble. That puke-inducingly predictable gem “my favourite philosopher is Jesus Christ.” And neither he nor Blair can escape blame for the bungled way they presented the case for war, nor for the lack of planning for handling the aftermath. Too much waffle about WMDs, too much banging on about 9/11. It would have been far better to concentrate on the failure of the UN to effectively do anything about this horrible man Saddam and his wrecked country.

Even so, chuck all these things in one side of the scales and it will barely register against the long-term benefits for Iraqis of a Saddam-free world, which should surely have been obvious to anyone with eyes to see.

Despite the doom-saying of the French, the rantings of Galloway, and despite the so-called ‘insurgents’ (‘insurging’ against what? The word is ‘criminals’) continuing to blast pathetically away at the newly-fledged citizens of Iraq, those citizens have nonetheless managed to create in record time a constitution and the basis for a democracy.

Which is how history will remember the great Iraqi adventure: as the imperfect but ultimately successful removal of a bloody tyrant, and the creation of a new democratic state. Sanity usually peeps through in the end. There are still protestors, but ultimately you need something to protest against, and the active ones have dwindled to a bunch of oddballs saying nothing much more than Father Ted’s “Down with this sort of thing”.

There remains however, a massive Left-wing resentment of Bush’s war, and an unhealthy eagerness to portray every setback as a disaster, and every step forward as inadequate. But that is what happens when your television screens and your fashionable politics are controlled by a Confederacy of Dunces.

(*Nothing personal, you understand. Some of my best friends are Guardian-toting weekend-warriors. But madness is madness).

(**Although funnily enough, polls a few days before the invasion found a majority of the British public in favour of the war, as the pull of British patriotism is so strong when the military actually gear up to go, that it overrides even the madness of crowds. A couple of years later, Blair won a general election, with the equally pro-war Tories making gains and the LibDems singularly failing to cash in on their supposed anti-war trump card, but by this time everyone had switched to Making Poverty History anyway).


martpol said...

So much to say in response, so little time...I should probably leave it until next week, but by then I'll forget.

So I'll just make a few key points:

1) Regarding the UN: if the worst charge is that he didn't properly investigate his son's role in a scandal over a contract, this is hardly systemic corruption. Far more important are the far-reaching reforms that are needed to the UN structure, including making its machinery more open and accountable, having a more representative Security Council, and imposing a tariff on international arms manufacturers. Who's been behind all these reforms? Annan. Unfortunately, it' often the major world powers that cripple the UN's functionality, not corruption. The failure of the recent UN summit to make any progress on the all-important Millennium Development Goals can in large part be laid at the door of the US, for appointing someone who was virulently anti-UN as its ambassador, and who even wanted to remove the phrase "Millennium Development Goals" from the summit agreement.

2) Why should international legality be put before the removal of a dictator? Well, if the major world powers don't uphold international law, what's the point of having them in the first place? Why should the will of two powerful countries outweigh that of virtually every other country in the Security Council? Previous UN resolutions were transparently twisted to suit the war agenda of the US and UK. And this also showed that those countries can pick and choose which Security Council resolutions to follow: it's an interesting fact that Israel has had more resolutions passed against it than has Iraq (and that's not counting the many which the US has blocked for its own political reasons); yet it continues to occupy Palestinian land illegally, backed by its high-profile international military support.

3) Was the Iraq war worth it? On the one hand there are, of course, the many thousands of people killed or tortured under Saddam Hussein's regime. On the other hand we have 100,000 Iraqis dead as a cause of the war; an insurgency likely likely to continue for years (the US is now telling soldiers they can expect to spend a year in Iraq, a year at home until at least 2008); the most US military deaths since Vietnam; continuing severe human rights abuses (including the assassination of academics and trade unionists, routine use of torture by Iraqi forces, and many extradjudicial executions).

4) What else could have been done? It's true that sanctions against Saddam weren't doing much good. Aid agencies and human rights groups had long called for sanctions to be cancelled and proper negotiations to start. But when you starve people of resources, alongside continually bombing their villagees, you're on a pretty poor footing for any sort of talks. The UN Charter demands that all peaceable methods are used to resolve a conflict before war can be declared. Given that weapons of mass destruction were the supposed reason for the war, the US and UK were extremely cavalier about letting UN weapons inspectors carry out their work properly. But more than that: diplomacy was not tried in any form with Saddam Hussein's government (and don't tell me it definitely wouldn't have worked - it's beginning to work in North Korea, the most secretive, beyond-the-pale government in the world), before the bombers and soldiers were sent in.

I'm as keen as you that people shouldn't be unthinkingly anti-American or anti-Western. But when we breach international law to unseat a sovereign government (any I don't accept Christopher Hitchens' arbitrary notion of what constitutes 'giving up sovereignty'), against objections from most of the world's governments and in full knowledge that we haven't tried any other methods, it begins to look pretty bad for maintaining the moral high ground.

Hey Skipper said...


How about doing a guick, but reasonably thorough, rundown of the status quo ante. Include the relevant history from the previous 10 or so years.

Then please present your course of action. (NB -- the allegation that WMD was the sole reason for the war is beyond baseless.)

No points for a null hypothesis, which is what your post presented.

martpol said...

My point was not that I have/had a masterplan for Middle East diplomacy, but that the united leaders of the world should have had (in the same way, I think it's valid to criticise the tearing up of international law without myself being a lawyer). The point still stands that no diplomatic measured were even attempted, indeed nothing was attempted beyond bombing raids and economic sanctions which served to weaken Iraq's people rather than help them. This, by the way, is a criticism of international inaction as a whole, not just of the US/UK: but if pressure was needed from those countries, then it should have been to press for an alternative solution to war.

Of course you're right that WMD was only the superficial reason for war. My point was more about the obligation for international action to be open and accountable; if the US/UK couldn't even follow correct procedures in the one area that they claimed did require a military solution, then why on earth trust their methods, motives and planning in other regards?

Brit said...

The question you pose, “If the major world powers don't uphold international law, what's the point of having them in the first place?” can be turned right back on the antebellum UN.

I’d say Hitchens’ ‘arbitrary notion of what constitutes giving up sovereignty’ is pretty lenient. Genocide, harbouring international criminals and ignoring the non-proliferation rules imposed on it seem sufficient conditions to me, but none are necessary.

The lack of democracy alone is sufficient in my book. Maybe there are benign as well as bloody dictators somewhere in this world, but even if there are, unless sovereignty is bestowed by citizens who can subsequently democratically remove the sovereign (and say what you like about ‘Bushitler’, he can’t stay beyond two terms), then that ‘sovereignty’ is a sham.

The question then is not “what is the point of the UN if its founder nations ignore its proclamations?”, but “what is the good of a United Nations that doesn’t act to replace dictatorships with liberal democracies?”

But of course, the notion that on Iraq it was crusading Bush, Blair and whoever else they could bully into siding with them, versus a French-led host of hand-wringing saints genuinely concerned about the horrors of war, is risible. It was, like all UN (or EU, or anything else) debates, one set of vested interests against another.

The difference is that the Coalition’s vested interests included action that will result in a democratic future for a reborn nation, while the French vested interests meant, at best, an indefinite prolonging of the wretched status quo. If Annan ruled the world, sure his son and George Galloway would get richer and well done to them, but Saddam would still be in power until such time as one of the Saddam Jnrs succeeded him.

Antebellum, everyone was entitled to toss their lot in with one side or the other for whatever reasons they liked, but if you’re going to oppose the removal of a genocidal dictator, they’d better be good reasons. Conspiracy theories about oil are not good reasons. Complaints about historical transgressions by the US or UK are not good reasons. The sovereignty of the UN is not a good reason, if the UN is only serving to protect the rule of that genocidal dictator.

The only good reason would be to propose a valid and workable alternative course of action to replace Saddam with democracy, at a definite point in the future, which could result in less bloodshed than the invasion. So where was it? It certainly didn’t come from the Not-in-my-name protestors, who favoured the bad reasons above. It didn’t and couldn’t come from the UN, because of the aforementioned vested interests, and because the UN is, like all committees, very bad at decisive action.

Of course, none of this is to say that we can’t criticise any aspect of the practical implementation of the war, the planning, and the post-war hearts and minds stuff.

But post-bellum, the arguments you make are largely academic. The only questions that will matter in years to come will be, without Saddam: 1) is Iraq better off? 2) are Britain and the US better off? 3) is the world a better place?

The first two questions answer themselves. The third question will take into account the effects on the great UN project.

But unless the UN acts to promote western-style liberal democracy in the world, then it isn’t worth listening to. I can’t see how you can deny this without falling into the cultural relativism trap, which amounts to the prejudicial idiocy of “the muslims/africans/orientals/eastern europeans just aren’t suited to democracy”.

martpol said...

Of themselves, the arguments pro- and anti-war are of course academic now. But the implications of that decision are far-reaching.

The UN was created specifically on the basis that nations respect each others' sovereignty. If they did not, the world would truly be a dangerously unstable place.

Those nations fighting for their sovereignty today - Palestine and Western Sahara in particular - need it in order to gain any sort of legitimate position in international relations. If we allow the principle that a nation's sovereignty can be ceded - whatever it has done wrong - then we revert to the World War II state of affairs which the establisment of the UN sought to avoid: the right to self-determined nationhood becomes useless, borders are fluid, armies of 'superior' nations are provided with a mandate to remove those which don't meet their world view.

I'm not levelling all these accusations at the US and UK - nor am I positing a conspiracy theory that we 'have it in' for more nations. But once a precedent is set, the barriers against such calculated action are greatly weakened.

It is not culturally relativistic to question the imposition of Western-style liberal democracy. Democracy in principle is good, yes: using military action to attempt to enforce it is not. Comparatively few of the UN's 191 member states are as advanced democratically as ourselves. And plenty are considered way beyond the pale: China, to name but one. The way such nations progress is through diplomacy and pressure. To suggest that the UN takes up a far larger proportion of its resources in launching a violent 21st-century political crusade is both impractical and implausible, especially when it is already operating on a budget equivalent to 0.2% of world military expenditure.

The notion that 'vested interests' in the UN prevented a diplomatic solution to the Iraq situation doesn't stand up to scrutiny. It was the UK and US which browbeat the UN Security Council about the 'dangers' of Saddam Hussein's Iraq; if they had a genuine interest in the Iraqi people (rather than a desire to be seen to be removing a dictator, or tackling terrorism), it was those countries which should have started a proper effort at international pressure and diplomacy.

Finally, to answer your first two questions: (1) Many Iraqis are better off. But many others fear for their lives, are being tortured or are dead. (2) No. We're less secure, and it's difficult to credibly argue otherwise.

Brit said...

In what sense does a genocidal dictatorship have any 'sovereignty'?

martpol said...

A state holds sovereignty. A dictatorship is the government in charge of that state at the time. Most dictatorships either move towards democracy in time, or are overthrown. Those which remain at large should be held to account using all possible peaceful international pressure, and bringing criminals to justice where required. None of this means that a state 'gives up' its sovereignty.

The recent case of the Rwandan genocide provides an interesting case. The UN really did fail to act here, because of disputes within the Security Council and American itchy feet after they botched things up in Somalia. But that failure was in not sanctioning a fully-armed UN peacekeeping force; no-one seriously suggested that the solution was a bilateral invasion with the intention of wresting away Rwanda's sovereignty.

In Saddam Hussein's case, the genocides were committed 12 to 20 years previously; Iraq was not obviously an unstable, conflict-stricken country in 2003. International law demands that the perpetrators of such crimes be brought to justice and tried in an international court, and that doesn't include tens of thousands of civilians being killed in order to get your hands on said dictator, only to turn him over to an internal court anyway.

Brit said...

As you say, the genocides took place 12 to 20 years ago, and it was to the disgrace of all the UN nations, including the US and the UK, that Saddam was not forcibly removed much earlier than he was.

martpol said...

(My last point on this one: I've been watching the piles of paperwork grow day by day...)

It's certainly to the disgrace of the US that it withdrew support in 1992 from the very internal forces which would have seen Saddam Hussein removed with considerably less bloodshed by Iraqi liberation forces.

My view remains that the use of external military force to depose any leader is unlawful, dangerous and destabilising, and I think that's borne out by the current situation in Iraq. The removal of Saddam and the improvements in democracy don't outweigh the 100,000 deaths caused by the war, the continued abuse of human rights (still committed by security forces), and the instability and violence which sees daily suicide bombings and a militarised mess from which it seems impossible for the Allies to extricate themselves.

Brit said...

I could argue the details about torture and human rights and the consequences of the war: that Abu-Graib at its worst under those stupid photo-taking American soldiers was nonetheless infintitely better than Abu-Graib at its best under Saddam (that's unarguable); that I can credibly argue that the world and Britain are safer with one less state around to harbour terrorists; that far from being constantly pitied as victims, the Iraqi people should be praised for coming out to vote despite al-Qaeda....

But I don't really need to because I reject the basic premise of your argument. Your argument is founded on the hypothesis that the UN had both the will and the ability to negotiate Saddam away, and to somehow bring him to trial for his crimes by words alone. I simply don't think that's remotely realistic.