What was Oil-For-Food and why is there such a scandal about it now?

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At first, I didn’t understand it myself. I thought, what’s the big deal? Humans have been using oil for food for millennia. For example, archeologists have evidence that the people of Babylon, the ancient civilization that once stood where modern Iraq now sorta crouches, used sesame oil for food 4,000 years ago.

Then it hit me. They’re not talking about that kind of oil. They’re talking about petroleum. You know - black gold, Texas tea, the stuff they put in cars, the stuff they make plastic with, the stuff that made J.R. Ewing such an irrepressible prick that when someone shot him, the entire city of Dallas was a suspect.

The U.N.’s Oil-For-Food Programme started in 1996. In a greasy little nutshell, here’s how Oil-For-Food was supposed to work. The U.N. allowed Iraq to sell a little bit of its oil to world buyers so that money could be earned to buy food and medicine for the Iraqi people. To understand why such a program was necessary, we have to travel even further back in time to that magical summer of 1990.

Ah, 1990. I remember it well. Mariah Carey enchanted the world with her “Vision of Love.” Pretty Woman’s Julia Roberts taught girls everywhere that giving head for money was fine, just as long as there was no kissing, and evil Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein completed his slow transformation from friend to enemy when he invaded Kuwait in August 1990.

Within days of the invasion, the U.N. slapped comprehensive economic sanctions on Iraq. En inglés: Buying anything from or selling anything to Iraq henceforth became an international crime. The sanctions would remain in place even after the massive, American-led international military coalition (believe it or not, such a thing was once possible) removed Saddam’s army from Iraq.

The sanctions were brutally effective. The only problem was that it was the Iraqi people, not the evil dictator, doing all the suffering. Saddam tried to break the international community’s will to keep the sanctions in place by making sure that life under sanctions was extra hellish for the Iraqi people. Standards of living plummeted while illness and infant mortality skyrocketed.

World opinion did start to turn against sanctions. More people thought, “Why punish ordinary Iraqis for Saddam’s sins?” We had wanted to keep sanctions in place because they denied Saddam the use of Iraqi oil to rebuild WMD programs and his army (one of the world’s largest before Gulf War I). But we recognized that sanctions wouldn’t last long without a program to relieve Iraqi suffering. So in 1996, the administrations of President Clinton and U.K. Prime Minister John Major devised the U.N. Oil-For-Food program.

Unfortunately, because of the way the program was devised, corruption and scandal were almost guaranteed. Oil-For-Food allowed Saddam to pick those he did Oil-For-Food business with. If you wanted to do business with Iraq through Oil-For-Food, Saddam typically required a bribe. Out of the $128 billion or so in transactions brokered under Oil-For-Food, Saddam skimmed somewhere between $1.7 billion and $4.4 billion. To put that in perspective, Saddam made somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 billion to $18 billion through direct, illegal oil sales to countries including Turkey and Jordan during the same period.

U.S. officials under Clinton and Bush II knew Saddam was stealing through Oil-For-Food. The administrations also knew he was selling oil illegally to Jordan and Turkey. Those were the acknowledged costs of a U.S. policy to keep sanctions and the U.N. No-Fly Zone in place. That hasn’t stopped conservative, U.N.-hating politicians, their yes-men in the press, and Rush Limbaugh callers from going crazy about it. Why worry about big problems when we can harp on about this relatively small one?

I’m not saying the U.N. is faultless. Joseph Stephanides, head of the U.N. Security Council affairs divisions, steered an Oil-For-Food contract to a British firm without going through proper procedures. Former Oil-For-Food director Benon Sevan has been suspended, pending an investigation of how $160,000 appeared in his bank account. And U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s son Kojo worked for the Swiss firm contracted to monitor Oil-For-Food.

But when supporters of George W. “My Dad Was President” Bush and Dick “Halliburton” Cheney start bitching about paternal influence and sweetheart contracts, you can understand why thinking people turn a bit skeptical.