The U.S. Gives Until It Hurts

John R. Bolton |  New York Post

America’s long-dominant role in international relief reflects both America’s innate compassion and its status as the world’s sole superpower. Time and time again, from tropical-storm devastation in Bangladesh, to the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami in Indonesia, to last month’s earthquake in Haiti, it is America that steps forward first to provide humanitarian relief. In particular, the US military has repeatedly brought to bear its enormous logistical capabilities, especially to lead the immediate response to both natural and man-made disasters.

And what distinguishes the United States even more from other countries is the consistently generous responses by millions of individual citizens, not waiting for their government to act, but contributing money, resources and their own time through churches, fraternal organizations and charities. We don’t do this because we have to, but because we want to. For good reason, therefore, we rightly view ourselves as well-motivated, effective and openhanded.

Many foreigners disagree. Just days after Haiti’s earthquake, France’s minister for international cooperation, Alain Joyandet, complained about the US effort, notably our military’s control of Haiti’s main airport. Joyandet said that “this is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti.” Fortunately, France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, whipped his minister back into line, just in time before Americans started reminding Paris of France’s colonial legacy in Haiti. Nonetheless, Europe, even after several weeks, is far from matching the US response.

Many people ask why, instead of the United States invariably taking on the burden of “first responder” to humanitarian disaster, the United Nations shouldn’t handle the job. Indeed, in the case of Haiti, there were approximately 9,000 UN uniformed peacekeepers already posted there, as well as almost 2,000 civilian UN personnel. Unfortunately, the UN’s performance over the years demonstrates it is not up to the task. In Haiti, even worse, scores of UN personnel died in the earthquake, including Hedi Annabi, the head of the overall UN mission in country.

The UN’s own internal disorganization has long made fast and effective responses almost impossible. Numerous independently governed and administered UN agencies and programs are involved in humanitarian relief efforts, and each marches to its own drummer. UNICEF cares for children and families; the World Health Organization looks after health, sanitation and medicines; the World Food Program distributes food supplies; and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees provides protection and assistance when political or natural disasters cause large numbers of people to cross national borders. The UN Development Program is supposed to be the overall country coordinator of the work of the many agencies involved, but that’s a nearly impossible task.

Then, of course, there’s the long, well-documented history of waste, fraud, corruption and incompetence in UN programs. In Haiti just last week, for example, UN peacekeeping troops from Uruguay were unable to manage the orderly distribution of food (donated from the US, of course) even directly in front of the Port-au-Prince’s now-leveled Presidential Palace. No criticisms, however, from Paris.

The UN system’s dysfunctional performance over the years culminated in dismay over the handling of refugees and displaced persons when Saddam Hussein renewed his persecution of Kurds and Shi’ites after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Major UN donor countries insisted on creating a new coordinating position, an Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, whose office became one more player to be coordinated. And outside the UN, the International Red Cross and scores of “non-governmental organizations,” often serve as the operating arms for UN agencies and national relief efforts. Rube Goldberg would be proud of this structure.

In a disaster’s immediate aftermath, the biggest problems are logistical: getting food, medicine, shelter and sanitation equipment rapidly to the affected areas, and the most important variables are time and distance. Delegating response to international organizations like the UN, rather than local groups, is a prescription for failure. For those countries that are too poor to have adequate disaster response capabilities, regional organizations like the African Union and ASEAN should be better prepared.

But make no mistake about it: the United States is the default humanitarian world leader because no alternatives are visible well into the future. Who else? The UN? The European Union? The “BRIC” countries–Brazil, Russia, India and China? Forget it. America will take the lead, and we will also take the criticism. Our only grim satisfaction will come if there is an American decline, as some believe inevitable, and many hope for. The rest of the world will miss us when we’re gone.

A Honey Pot for Saddam

John R. Bolton |  Wall Street Journal

To his sorrow, a U.N. devotee saw the Oil for Food fiasco firsthand.  John R. Bolton reviews Backstabbing for Beginners, by Michael Soussan.

Barack Obama spent a good part of his campaign telling us that the United States needs to “restore” its good name in the world and, toward that end, to renew its commitment to “dialogue” and to the imperatives of international organizations like the United Nations. Whomever Mr. Obama picks as his U.N. ambassador, though, may first want to take a look at Michael Soussan’s Backstabbing for Beginners. Mr. Soussan is hardly a knuckle-dragging U.N. basher–a dozen years ago, he was just as enamored with the U.N. as the president-elect is today. Then, in 1997, the Danish-born recent graduate of Brown University, longing to “make a difference,” leapt at the chance to work for the organization. But three years of up-close experience in the U.N.’s aid program for Iraq, which came to be known as Oil for Food, soon opened his eyes.

The Oil for Food program was designed to permit Saddam Hussein’s government, then operating under U.N. sanctions, to use the proceeds from limited oil sales to purchase food and other necessities for the Iraqi people. But as Mr. Soussan shows in compelling detail, the program degenerated into a swamp of corruption, indifferent oversight and de facto support for Saddam’s malevolent rule.

Remarkably, despite his revulsion over the Oil for Food fiasco, Mr. Soussan declares that his “faith in the need for international governance” remains strong. Americans could be pardoned for having the opposite reaction, especially when the author extends his criticism of the U.N. beyond Oil for Food, observing, for instance, that the General Assembly’s “greatest achievement is to approve its own budget.” Nonetheless, it is precisely Mr. Soussan’s unshakable belief in the benefits of “international governance” that makes his reporting on the U.N. so devastating.

Whatever hardships and inequities existed in Iraq were not caused by the sanctions but by Saddam’s control over the distribution of humanitarian supplies.

Maybe he imagines some future group of nations that will live up to the U.N. Charter, because his views regarding the current one are unequivocal: “I was glad I was no longer working for an organization that valued its employees most dearly for their ability to hide their eyes, cover their ears, and shut their mouths in the face of gross incompetence and corruption.” What U.N. skeptic could put it better?

Mr. Soussan explains how the U.N. Secretariat’s highest levels–and specifically former Secretary General Kofi Annan–allowed the Oil for Food program to be commandeered by Saddam Hussein and deformed to fit his dictatorial needs. While inattention, incompetence and mismanagement undoubtedly played major roles in this debacle, the real key was that neither top U.N. officials nor much of its staff supported the Security Council’s economic sanctions against Iraq in the first place. Accordingly, the U.N.’s own Oil for Food administrators were happy to see the sanctions effectively undermined. It was a stance politically facilitated by outright subversion of the sanctions by Council members such as Russia and France.

Backstabbing for Beginners points out, for example, that the U.N. personnel monitoring the distribution of Oil for Food’s humanitarian supplies in Iraq were effectively under Saddam’s control, although they never admitted as much. U.N. agencies had “gone native” in Iraq, Mr. Soussan reports, and they fell into line with the regime’s insistence that “sanctions on Iraq should be lifted immediately.”

Mr. Soussan says that his “college newspaper had a better fact-checking mechanism than our UN observers in Iraq.” In one meeting in Baghdad, he says, the U.N. personnel “sounded exactly like Iraqi government officials.” Indeed, Denis Halliday, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Iraq at the start of the Oil for Food program, complained that the U.S. had effectively hijacked the U.N., turning it into a “dark joke” and a “malignant force.”

The posturing by U.N. staff members persisted even though they knew full well that whatever hardships and inequities existed in Iraq were not caused by the sanctions but by Saddam’s control over the distribution of humanitarian supplies. “It was clear to everybody,” Mr. Soussan writes, “that the hospitals in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit had their stocks full and the hospitals in the Shiite south remained chronically underprovisioned.” In the face of massive evidence, neither the Secretariat nor the Council did anything about such abuses–fully justifying Oil for Food investigator Paul Volcker’s later conclusion that the U.N. was gripped by a “culture of inaction.”

Even worse, Mr. Soussan shows, “the team around Kofi Annan . . . had discreetly allied themselves with the positions of the anti-sanctions activists.” In full public view, Mr. Annan disdained “merely” implementing Security Council resolutions, the Secretary General’s principal responsibility under the U.N. Charter. Mr. Annan had higher goals in mind: He had his aides convey to the ever-receptive media that the U.N. secretary general was essentially a “secular pope,” a role he very much saw himself embodying.

While Mr. Annan and his subordinates both undercut the sanctions against Iraq and declined to take responsibility for the unraveling Oil for Food program, the secretary general himself was off pursuing what he called his “sacred duty”–his February 1998 trip to Baghdad to beg Saddam Hussein to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. Returning to a stage-managed welcome home at the U.N., Mr. Annan announced to his employees that, in Baghdad, “he had been surrounded by ‘the world’s prayers.’ ”

Obviously those prayers didn’t accomplish much, because Saddam quickly reverted to type, bullying the weapons inspectors and refusing to comply with Council resolutions. His intransigence prompted the Clinton administration’s inadequate Operation Desert Fox, a retaliatory four-day bombing operation in December 1998. Keeping his eye on his own halo, Mr. Annan said of Desert Fox: “This is a sad day for the United Nations and the world. It is also a very sad day for me personally.”

Sad for him, no doubt, because what Mr. Annan and many in the U.N. desired–as they still do–is autonomy from the direction or influence of the very member governments that constitute and fund the U.N. system. Given the sorry example of the U.N. in action described by Mr. Soussan, Backstabbing for Beginners has put the fledgling Obama administration unambiguously on notice.