Thursday, October 27, 2005

Follow the Money

Perplexed by what to believe about Iraq?

Bamboozled by the Bush Administration's pre-war hype and spin about WMD? Bewildered by the Left's exploitation of the CIA leak case as a proof of Bush's lies? Baffled by the opposition of allies like France, Russia and Germany? Bewildered by the positions of people like Scott Ritter, David Albright, Wes Clarke and others who have to-and-fro'd about the presence of Saddam's stockpiles? Befuddled by the Downing Street Memos, Ahmed Chalabi, Halliburton, Operation Desert Fox, yellowcake, David Kelley, the Dodgy Dossier, aluminum tubes, Mohammad Atta in Prague, the Sarindar Plan, Iraqi-held Russian night vision goggles and jamming equipment?

Well, your discombobulation might soon experience at least a tinge of relief. Since the beginning, I have argued that the story of Iraq is far more complex and multilateral than the ossified "oil war" and "neo-con" memes we've come to know and love. And I've also argued that many answers to our questions will emerge through a deep analysis of the UN Oil-for-Food program. In short, I've urged that interested parties follow the money.

The New York Times previews today's release of the Volcker Commission's fifth and final report which further underscores the way in which Iraq had become a pawn in a geopolitical struggle involving many more parties than the Bush Administration, neo-conservatives and Halliburton.

More than 4,500 companies took part in the United Nations oil-for-food program and more than half of them paid illegal surcharges and kickbacks to Saddam Hussein, according to the independent committee investigating the program. The country with the most companies involved in the program was Russia, followed by France, the committee says in a report to be released Thursday.

Yes, the report will also feature corrupt American companies who engaged in illicit dealings with the Baathist regime. However, the report will also likely show how some countries and the UN engaged in dealings which didn't just involve lining their own and Saddam's pockets, but also with the weakening of the inspections and sanctions regimes that had been put in place.

The investigators said Thursday's report would detail how Mr. Hussein first steered the program to gain political advantage with political allies and countries in a position to ease the United Nations sanctions. Both Russia and France are veto-bearing members of the Security Council. "Then it got corrupted with a capital C when Saddam figured out how to make money off of it by putting on the surcharges and kickbacks," one investigator said. At first, he said, companies balked at paying the extra fees, and the oil sales slowed. At that point, "less orthodox companies" came forward and accepted the terms, opening the way for the program's full scale exploitation and allowing legitimate companies to buy oil from illegitimate ones.

It will be interesting to see if there are any direct mentions of Tariq Azziz's attempt to bribe former UNSCOM chief inspector Rolf Ekeus to the tune of $2M as well as the reported bribes paid to Russian Foreign Ministers Primakov and Ivanov. We already know that Friend of Saddam George Galloway and former French envoy to the UN Jean-Bernard Merimee are in hot water over their dealings with Saddam. And we also have strong evidence linking French positions on sanctions, inspections and the war to potential petroleum spoils.

Tariq Aziz, the former Iraqi deputy prime minister, told the ISG that the "primary motive for French co-operation" was to secure lucrative oil deals when UN sanctions were lifted. Total, the French oil giant, had been promised exploration rights.

It is important to note yet again, that the economic ties are being documented via the Volcker Report as well as those of Norm Coleman's Senate sub-committee and the work of the Iraq Survey Group. The documentation of those facts is important. But they must be viewed within the context of the positions taken by France and Russia (as well as China) in the UN Security Council. While each of those nations worked to weaken the sanctions regime, none of those nations voted to extend UNSCOM's inspections mission after it was forced to leave Iraq in 1998. None of them voted to create UNMOVIC and re-deploy inspectors to Iraq in 1999. Yet they were all nations who strongly urged that Hans Blix's UNMOVIC team be given more time to conduct inspections in 2003.

A coincidence? Not likely. In time, even stronger evidence will link the economic benefits to the policy positions. And the world, including those who suggest that the United States acted out of pure economic self-interest, while their opponents acted out of concern for peace, will experience a major re-orientation in their understanding of the facts. That is, if they bother to read stories on page D26.

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