The UN's independent inquiry into the Oil-for-Food scandal, headed by former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, issued its final report this week. This puts an end to an episode in international governance that goes beyond mere embarrassment. Its consequences have never been fully appreciated, and in my view, both the Volcker Report and Secretary-General Annan's appropriately contrite response still fall short in that regard, even though they support the need for UN reform.
Accountability is a word that has recently reentered our vocabulary in the context of the confused response to Hurricane Katrina. Politicians, pundits, and average citizens across the spectrum are calling for a thorough investigation that will hold those responsible for the poor execution of rescue and relief efforts accountable. Admission of responsibility for actions or inaction, without acceptance of responsibility for the consequences, does not meet the test of real accountability. And that is precisely my problem with Oil-for-Food.
The Iraq War was a war of choice for America and the allies that joined us. Whether you agree with that choice or not, it is hard in retrospect to argue that Iraq was an immediate danger to world peace or an immediate threat to this country. But just as this is now clear, it is equally clear that the circumstances that put this choice on the table were created by the perceived failure of international sanctions and the mechanisms by which they were enforced to deprive Iraqi of the means for acquiring weapons that threatened their neighbors, up to and including the unrealized potential--call it a too-clever bluff--of WMD.
In evaluating the failures of the UN's administration of Oil-for-Food, it's important to keep in mind the role that the program played within the international sanctions regime. Oil-for-Food was the key to the sustainability of sanctions, with its intended purpose of minimizing the impact on Iraqi civilians. The corruption of Oil-for-Food and the misallocation of the supplies it acquired created a machine that Saddam used to turn oil, food and medicine into cash for arms and palaces, while keeping his people in misery--misery that was highly visible to the international community and that was visibly eroding the resolve within the Security Council to maintain and enforce sanctions. (Mr. Volcker's finding that Oil-for-Food succeeded in maintaining "the international effort to deprive Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction" ignores the rate at which support for sanctions was decaying in 2000-2002.)
I am not calling for Kofi Annan's head on a platter. Rather, I am disappointed and vexed that the UN has still failed to admit that its actions set the stage for a war that Oil-for-Food was established to prevent, and that has contributed to the tightening of global oil supplies. Anything short of this escapes true accountability and reduces the likelihood that the UN will be given such responsibility in the future.