Yahoo News
Friday, February 4, 2005

By William F. Buckley Jr.

A wild thought passes through my mind, which is that maybe Benon Sevan
is in fact innocent! Innocent of receiving money directly from his
buddy Fakhry Abdelnour, the Egyptian whose company (AMEP — African
Middle East Petroleum) wanted some Iraqi chits to permit oil purchases.
Benon Sevan was certainly not innocent of using his influence in
behalf of his friends and of failing to blow any whistles when suspect
contractors were designated to oversee the oil-for-food program, a
cover-up for easing the life and enhancing the fortunes of Saddam
Hussein (news – web sites). The U.N. had evolved into a bureaucracy
besotted by people who were contriving to get around the freeze on the
full production and sale of Iraqi oil.

There is one concrete item that Paul Volcker’s commission of inquiry
brought out. During the period being examined, Benon Sevan received
gifts totaling $160,000 from — not Saddam, not Abdelnour, not Amir
Mohammad Rashid, the former Iraqi oil minister. But from an aunt. An
aunt greatly devoted to Sevan, we plausibly assume, though she is dead
and can’t be questioned. She was a photographer who lived in
Cyprus. Now, many transactions can amount to $160,000. For instance,
two transactions, added together, of $80,000 each. But the Volcker
commission focuses on a figure of $160,000, paid by Abdelnour to
Saddam Hussein as an illegal surcharge for oil purchased.

So it’s odd, but there is no evidence that the aunt in Cyprus gave
another $160,000 to Abdelnour. And anyway, those would have been
discrete benefactions. Sevan says he is entirely innocent. High
U.N. officials who worked with him for many years before his
retirement express worry and annoyance that Sevan should have got
himself so embedded in the sticky oil-for-food situation, but it isn’t
likely that he will be yanked from his retirement in Cyprus, deprived
of his diplomatic immunity and charged with grand larceny.

No, the debacle of oil-for-food demonstrates the difficulty in
managing, without leakage, a sum like the extraordinary $64 billion
involved. That is the value of the oil that Iraq (news – web sites)
was permitted to sell in order to raise money to feed hungry Iraqis
and to look after medical and other needs. The component parts of the
operation, which took place under the supervision of the United
Nations (news – web sites), begged for exploitation. There were a
myriad of people eager to get the coupons for that oil, because it was
being merchandised at a price lower than the price of oil in the world

A reporter for The New York Times summarizes the handling of the
matter: “Iraq did not sell oil to just anyone. Under the guidance of
Taha Yassin Ramadan, an Iraqi vice president, and the Revolutionary
Command Council, headed by Mr. Hussein, a large portion of the oil
allocations were handed out to a select group that included
businessmen, politicians, journalists and diplomats who were perceived
to be sympathetic to Iraq.”

The friendly people negotiated the sale of $64 billion in oil. It
beggars the imagination that anything on such a scale, going through
so many hands, could have got safe, hygienic passage from Iraqi oil
wells to bread for kids.

Mr. Volcker’s commission has put off for months the completion of its
investigation. What we can say at this point is that, quoting the news
item, the “United Nations’ largest relief effort was riddled with
political favoritism and mismanagement.”

“I am reluctant to conclude that the U.N. is damaged beyond repair,”
commented Rep. Henry Hyde (news, bio, voting record), chairman of the
House International Relations Committee. “But these revelations
certainly point in this direction.” Sen. Norm Coleman (news, bio,
voting record) of the Senate Permanent Committee on Investigation
wants action taken against Mr. Sevan, just to begin with.

But whatever steps are taken concretely, they aren’t — based on the
evidence of the Volcker commission — going to tell us very much that
we don’t already take for granted, namely the attractions of
larceny. If what happens is the demystification of the United Nations
as a vessel of incorruptibility, then that belated introduction to
reality is welcome. It doesn’t tell us what exactly a renewed
relationship with the U.N. should stress. It doesn’t even tell us what
has happened to all that money Saddam accumulated, some of it with the
connivance of U.N. officials.