Archive for April, 2004


Sunday, April 25th, 2004

Human institutions are by nature flawed because they are composed of imperfect human beings. Although talented and honest people are necessary for the long-term success of any institution, internal checks and balances are also essential. Lately, it has become apparent that the United Nations is not populated with a sufficient number of people of character and integrity and the honest ones that remain are not buttressed by sufficient institutional mechanisms to protect them.

When called upon to administer the Oil-for-Food Program, the UN not only allowed former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to skim money off the top — money intended to provide food and medical supplies to Iraqi children — but skimmed some of it off for themselves. Not managing to keep Hussein from surreptitiously stealing from his own people may be slightly mitigated as amazingly negligent incompetence. Participating in the theft represents corruption of the highest order.

It all started in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. Hussein was required to make a full accounting of the destruction of his weapons of mass destruction as well as forgo his aid to foreign terrorist organizations. The international community concluded that the Iraqi regime had not complied with the terms of the armistice. As a way to apply pressure to the regime, most trade with Iraq was prohibited. Although some humanitarian aid was permitted, the Iraqi regime and human rights organizations complained that though the sanctions were aimed at Hussein, the children of

To alleviate the problem, the United Nations started the Oil-for-Food Program. Iraq would be permitted to sell portions of its oil in exchange for food and other humanitarian supplies. Administering such a large program is admittedly difficult, but it is something for which the UN ought to exhibit particular competence. If it can not manage to do this, it is hard to understand what else they could be good at. Inexplicably, the UN permitted Iraq to pick both the companies it sold oil to and the companies from which it would purchase supplies. Hence, Hussein was able to skim money off both ends.

It worked this way. Iraq would sell oil at below market rates to companies it selected. After the re-sale of the oil, these companies would then kickback funds directly to the Iraqi government. Similarly, the Iraqi government would purchase food and supplies at above market rates from hand-picked companies and would later receive a kick back. As a consequence, the General Accounting Office reports that the Iraqi regime skimmed at least $10 billion intended for Iraqi children. All this was happening while the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization as well as the UN Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) reported that 200 children were dying everyday (more than 5000 per month) due to sanctions.

Investigative reporting by the Wall StreetJournal and Commentary Magazine has documented that one of the beneficiaries of skimmed money was Benon Sevan, the UN Executive Director of the Oil-for-Food Program. In the first year of the program, most of the transactions were open, but after Sevan took over a veil of secrecy was drawn over the program for “proprietary” reasons. It has been reported that Iraq was using a Panamanian firm to send money directly to Sevan. Moreover, a Swiss-based firm, Cotecna Inspections, with ties to Kojo Annan, son of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, was in charge of inspecting shipments bound for Iraq. There were no declarations or even considerations of an apparent conflict of interest. Among items that were approved for humanitarian aid by the company were a Mercedes Benz and equipment for the Iraqi Departments of Justice and Information.

Other evidence indicates that much of the Oil-for-Food funding was routed through the French bank now known as BNP Paribas and that French and Russian firms were favorite choices of Hussein for below market price oil sales. Conclusive evidence is still out on the French and the Russians. However, the fact that the French and the Russians were both benefactors of Iraqi largesse and the French and Russians made sure the Security Council would never endorse the use of force against Iraq deserves greater scrutiny. If it turns out that the French and Germans acted in the Security Council for largely pecuniary purposes, it would damage the prestige and moral authority, such as it is, of French and Russian and the UN. It is hard to argue that the UN is an honest broker when it is taking payoffs on the side.

Embarrassed by the scandal, Kofi Annan now has asked Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, to lead an investigation. However, it is not clear where all the records are and if Volcker will be able to come to some definitive conclusions about the scandal.

The Bush Administration is trying to broaden the international participation in the reconstruction of by enlisting the UN to help in the transition to Iraqi authority. While this is probably a wise move, we should be careful of what we wish for. We may get it.

Understanding Bush

Sunday, April 18th, 2004

It is always amazing how those who ought to be educated and well-read enough to know better cannot seem to understand President George W. Bush. It is not simply a question of agreeing or disagreeing with him, many just can’t understand him well enough to appreciate what he is saying. Perhaps it is because many are a little too cynical, sophisticated, or “realistic” to understand. Bush is a traditional American, while many in the so-called chattering classes are post-modern Americans.

When the president delivers a speech, the elites can sometimes tenuously grasp at Bush’s thinking. Bush’s ideas are intrinsically American and harken back to the thinking of the Founders and these sentiments sometimes can be translated by speech writers for the learned classes. However, when Bush answers questions at a press conference, he speaks more directly from his heart. Sure, in his sometimes bubbling way he can garble his thoughts, but other times his words peal out with simple direct tones that should pierce even the intellectual fog that obscures much of Washington. The world views of Bush and the press and others are so different that communication is inhibited.

It is viewed as arrogance by some, but the United States was born with a conviction that the American Revolution represented a fundamental break in the history of mankind. It was not that America would become a new imperial power to replace the old, but that the American example, if Americans could make it successful, would become a beacon of hope for the rest of the world, a shining city upon a hill.

The United States was explicitly born with the conviction about the nature of man and government, embodied in the most cited phrases of the Declaration of Independence:

“they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

How then could the press and punditry not see an evocation of this theme when Bush claimed at his recent news conference, “I also have this belief, strong belief, that freedom is not this country’s gift to the world. Freedom is the Almighty’s gift to every man and woman in this world.” How can so many be so blinkered as to not at least recognize the allusion to our founding documents?In response to a query by the press about whether there had been sufficient leadership from the White House, Bush explained that “…there’s an historic opportunity here to change the world … A free Iraq is going to be a major blow for terrorism. It’ll change the world.” Why does this not recall to everyone’s mind Thomas Paine’s somewhat more poetic and direct assertion in the pamphlet Common Sense, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” The reference is not veiled or obscured, it is simply ignored and overlooked by those who are so focused on their views that the obvious blurs into the background unobserved.

It appears hard for many to recognize even more modern allusions in Bush’s rhetoric. George Bush reaffirmed American commitment to freedom when he avered “…as the greatest power on the face of the earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom.” In much the same way John F. Kennedy proclaimed American commitment to freedom. “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

For so many, Vietnam was the defining experience of their youth. Hence, everything is viewed through that prism. Now that there have been in Bush’s words “tough” weeks in Iraq, everyone is focused on that characterization because of its evocations of tough times in Vietnam. Press reports and commentary constantly cite Bush’s characterization “tough”, as they indeed should. At the press conference he used “tough” or variant eleven times and there was emphasis on the difficulties in Iraq.

However, he also used the words “free” or “freedom” 52 times. He even extemporaneously used the rhetorical device of amplification when he explained the constructive consequences of a free Iraq:

“A free Iraq is vital because 25 million Iraqis have as much right to live in freedom as we do.

A free Iraq will stand as an example to reformers across the Middle East.

A free Iraq will show that America is on the side of Muslims who wish to live in peace, as we’ve already shown in Kuwait and Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan.

A free Iraq will confirm to a watching world that America’s word, once given, can be relied upon, even in the toughest times.”

Now Bush may be foolish or wise in his emphasis on freedom. He may be hopelessly unrealistic or faithful to the founding vision of America. However, these questions are not considered because these words and words like them lay about largely unreported, ignored, and unnoticed.

During the press conference, Bush was asked if he had “failed in any way to really make the case to the American public?” Well sometimes to hear a case, we all have to listen and pay attention.

Potential Turning Point in Iraq

Sunday, April 11th, 2004

Wars have their turning points. In the American Revolutionary War, well-disciplined Americans under the leadership of General Horatio Gates at Saratoga forced British General John Burgoyne to give up his attempt to physically split the young United States by marching south from Canada. The victory convinced the French that the colonies had a credible chance to win their independence from Britain. Subsequent military support from the French was crucial in the American victory.

In the American Civil War, it seemed that General Robert E. Lee’s perpetual successes would insure that Union forces would never be able to decisively defeat the Confederate States. Emboldened by his victory at Chancellorsville, Virginia in May 1863, Lee believed that by striking deeply into Union territory he could sap the will of the Union and sue for some sort of peace. Fortunately for the Union, Lee met surprisingly strong resistance from troops led by General George G. Meade at Gettysburg. Lee was forced to withdraw and the ultimate outcome of the Civil War never seemed in doubt afterwards.

During the Vietnam War, the surprising attacks by the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive in 1968 convinced many, at least the American elites, that victory by the North was inevitable. The ironic part was that in Vietnam, the American response to the Tet Offensive was heartening to the South Vietnamese. The North took its best shot and was decisively repelled. However, the perception of victory or defeat appears to be at least as important as the actual facts.

Up until February, it appeared that perhaps Iraq was settling into a level of normalcy. Economic activity is exploding, unemployment is plummeting, children are attending school, and oil production has surpassed pre-war levels. The number of Coalition casualties was dwindling. February experienced the lowest level of Coalition casualties since liberation.

Somewhere in March, the level of violence exploded, symbolized by the gruesome burning and display of American contractors by Islamo-fascists in Fallujah. Fallujah is a stronghold of Sunni Muslims who profited under the despotic rule of Saddam Hussein. Loyalists to the former regime were never routed out of Fallujah during the initial hostilities. Baghdad fell before Coalition troops reached Fallujah and the Saddam Hussein loyalists faded into the populace rather than fight. Undeterred, they are now trying to disrupt the transfer of power to Iraqi authorities. A free Iraq ruled democratically would certainly diminish their position. Indeed, captured documents reveal Sunni intentions to attack the majority Shite population. Those that seize hostages and directly target civilians for violence conspicuously reveal their minute moral stature.

In order for the fledging Iraqi democracy to take root, ordinary Iraqis must be convinced that they will not be abandoned by the Americans until security is established and a stable Iraqi government assumes full authority over the country. Those who are certain that they could not achieve political leadership through a democratic process have no choice but to use violence and intimidation. Make no mistake about it, almost by definition, the forces for disruption in Iraq are anti-democratic and anti-freedom.

The current chaos in Iraq represents both a crisis and an opportunity. If Americans can find a way to maintain security while moving Iraq toward political normalcy, a turning point will have occurred in Iraq. It is, of course, always possible that a victory in Iraq will not be portrayed as such in the media. Fascist insurgents realize they cannot win a military victory and they seek to secure the important propaganda one.

The Dog That Did Not Bark

Sunday, April 4th, 2004

In the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes was able to deduce that the killer of Colonel Ross’s racehorse was the owner of the stable dog. As the fictional Holmes chronicler Dr. John Waston explains:

Colonel Ross still wore an expression which showed the poor opinion which he had formed of my companion’s ability, but I saw by the inspector’s face that his attention had been keenly aroused

“You consider that to be important?” he asked.

“Exceedingly so.”

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

The only person at whom the stable dog would not bark warnings was the dog’s owner. Hence, the dog’s silence indicated that the only one who could have entered the stable and killed the horse, was the dog’s owner.

Since then, the metaphor of the “dog that didn’t bark” characterizes the import of any conspicuous silence. After millions of people have watched Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, and after solemn proclamations by many in the chattering classes that the movie, at the very least, might inadvertently inflame anti-Semitism, what is curious is the dog that didn’t bark.

If there had been a significant increase in anti-Semitic events, such as the destruction or defacement of synagogues, we can utterly rely on the fact that such an increase would have been given prominent play in the media. Over the last several weeks, the persistent silence by some in the media who might have welcomed a vindication of their first, and now demonstrably erroneous judgment of the movie is perhaps the most credible evidence that anti-Semitism was not the effect of the movie. Indeed, a survey by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research suggests that, if anything, The Passion of the Christ has had a positive impact on the disposition toward Jews.

According to the president of the institute, Dr. Gary Tobin, “The film and perhaps even more, the discussions about the film, are having something of a positive effect, which is good news …While the film may have a different impact elsewhere in the world, so far The Passion of the Christ is not producing any significant anti-Jewish backlash.”

But the United States is perhaps the world’s most progressive non-Jewish nation with regard to its embrace of its Jewish citizens. As Dr. Tobin wonders, could not the movie, when viewed by those not so favorably disposed, at least inadvertently play into anti-Jewish prejudices? The question is fair given the nearly infinite capacity of human beings to bend any message to suit their own purpose. Certainly, the words of the Bible itself have been ill-used by the ill-intentioned.

There was a time, centuries ago, when the Islamic world was more accommodating to Jews than Christendom. Unfortunately, much of the Islamic world now suffers the affliction of anti-Semitism. What would be the effect of showing The Passion of the Christ in such an environment? Well the first surprisingly positive reports are in as the movie has now opened in Qatar. Some in Qatar were attracted to the movie because of its purported anti-Semitism, but a fascinating thing has happened. Many Muslims walked away from the movie, not with their anti-Semitism inflamed, but moved by the fact that Jesus loved his enemies and forgave those who persecuted him. As a Christian missionary (a somewhat dangerous and tenuous position in the modern Islamic world) has observed, “Muslims are going to see this film because of their hatred and in the end, the message they will hear is love. Is it not like God to do something like that? They mean it for evil and God means it for good.” Perhaps those who were most vociferous in their condemnation of the movie as anti-Semitic and who as a consequence attracted Islamic audiences to the film were in their own clumsy and wonderful way working the will of God. Curious.