American outrage over the diversion of U.N.-supervised Iraqi oil-for-food money seems to miss three salient points. First, no American funds were stolen. Second, no U.N. funds were stolen. Third, the oil-for-food program achieved its two objectives: providing food to the Iraqi people and preventing Saddam Hussein from rebuilding his military threat to the region — and in particular from reconstituting his programs for weapons of mass destruction.
The oil-for-food program was part of a comprehensive set of U.N.-mandated sanctions designed to prevent Hussein from again becoming a threat to his neighbors. The program was intended to allow the proceeds from Iraqi oil exports to be used to purchase food and medicine for the Iraqi people, but not weapons or WMD-related technology for the Hussein regime.
It is now clear, based on the most exhaustive American post-intervention examination, that the U.N. sanctions regime, including both U.N. weapons inspectors and the U.N.-administered oil-for-food program, fully met this core objective. At the direction of the Security Council, and as a result of the international embargo and international inspections, Iraq destroyed its stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in the early 1990s, did not acquire new such weapons and did not even reconstitute a program to develop nuclear weapons. More broadly, U.N. sanctions resulted in a steady decline in Iraq's military capabilities from the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 to the day of the American-led intervention.
At the same time, the oil-for-food program served its humanitarian goal of feeding the Iraqi people, if not perfectly at least so effectively that Washington asked the United Nations to keep the program in effect for six months after the United States took power in Baghdad.
It is clear that Hussein and his henchmen took advantage of inadequate U.N. oversight to siphon large sums from the program, but the money was Iraqi to begin with and the amounts siphoned were never enough to undermine the purpose for which the sanctions were in place. It is also clear that unscrupulous non-Iraqi businessmen sometimes, apparently, with the knowledge of their governments, connived in these diversions and drew illegitimate profits from them.
Thus the bad news is that the United Nations proved unequal to the task of preventing a rogue regime from stealing some of its own money. The good news is that this same U.N. machinery proved equal to the task of preventing that regime from fielding weapons of mass destruction, developing nuclear weapons and reemerging as a military threat to its neighbors. So the U.N. performance was mixed, but at least it got its priorities straight.
U.N. sanctions against Iraq, including the oil-for-food program, are worth close scrutiny not just because some of that money was stolen but because, taken as a whole, this represents one of the most successful uses of international sanctions on record. Any effort to correct past abuses and forestall future ones should proceed from the recognition that, despite its defects, this regime served the international community's security and humanitarian objectives exceptionally well.
James Dobbins, a former assistant secretary of state and special envoy for Afghanistan, directs the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND Corp.
This commentary originally appeared in Washington Post on December 10, 2004.