Jewish World Review May 6, 2004 / 15 Iyar, 5764

Peter A. Brown

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Corrupt U.N.? Shine a light | Perhaps the congressional charge that Saddam Hussein skimmed $10 billion in U.N. humanitarian aid has gotten such short shrift because we expect so little of the world body. Maybe the relative silence about millions of dollars that U.N. officials allegedly pocketed lies in the belief that Americans take corruption at the United Nations for granted.

Conservatives see a biased news media not wanting to embarrass John Kerry, who favors greater U.N. clout in U.S. foreign policy.

It is neither that simple nor conspiratorial. It is puzzling, however, that so little attention has been paid to the allegations from the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Whatever the reason, it's time to put the United Nations under the microscope, to understand how the bureaucracy that runs the world body operates in the 21st century.

For many years the United Nations was akin to motherhood and apple pie. We got all tingly about uniting to ensure world peace, singing "Kumbaya" and collecting quarters for UNICEF at Halloween.

Those days are gone. American taxpayers may be the United Nations' largest single financial backer, but U.S. views and values are often the minority ones there.

Yet many Americans, especially those who think Bush is a four-letter word, like the United Nations' politics and see the world body as a brake on a president they distrust. Whether U.S. taxpayers should support such an organization so heavily is an argument for another day.

However, everyone should want to find out if those who run the place are crooks.

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The GAO, which leveled the corruption charge, is not a partisan source. In recent years, it often split with President Bush, for example trying to slow development of an anti-missile-defense system the White House favors.

The corruption allegation is based on documents seized after Baghdad fell, showing U.N. officials let Saddam pocket $10 billion from the $67 billion "oil-for-food" program, and that French and Russian firms were part of the deal.

The program, meant to feed the Iraqi people without propping up Saddam, was exempt from sanctions forbidding nations from trading with Iraq after the '91 Gulf War.

To put the numbers into perspective, $10 billion is about two-thirds of the NASA budget.

You would think possible U.N. corruption would be especially relevant because its role in U.S. foreign policy has become a major issue in this year's presidential campaign.

Kerry's main criticism of Bush's attack on Iraq is that the president did not give strong enough consideration to U.N. objections and work with its members.

Democrats/liberals, who generally hold more of a "one world" view, have found themselves even more wedded to the United Nations because of a mutual contempt for Bush's unilateral bent.

Republicans/conservatives have historically been more suspicious of the world body, and especially its bureaucracy, which views talking as an end in itself, regardless of the stakes, and has a quasi-socialist philosophy that can be seen in the aid program's emphasis on central planning.

If the corruption allegations are true, they might explain the U.N. reluctance to enforce its own resolutions against Saddam, which led Bush to invade Iraq, not to mention the French and Russian opposition.

And, the integrity of the United Nations is even more important now that Kerry and Bush both want it to play a larger role in rebuilding Iraq.

The United Nations has begun to understand how big a deal corruption charges could be, and is circling the wagons with denials of responsibility. The world body has finally appointed former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker to investigate the matter.

It's about time, but one has to wonder about the credibility of the U.N. bureaucracy, famous for its ability to obfuscate.

The relative silence about the charges is more than surprising. Imagine the fuss if an American non-profit was alleged to have paid off a tiny fraction of $10 billion to Saddam, even as part of a humanitarian effort.

Conservatives are correct that focusing an intense spotlight on U.N. corruption allegations would certainly create a political problem for Kerry, because it would raise questions about his judgment.

Even though Bush also wants an increased U.N. role in postwar Iraq, his well-publicized feud with the body would probably inoculate him against the political fallout.

Regardless of how the political chips fall, let's find out if there is a seamier side of the United Nations to expose for all to see.

Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Comment by clicking here.


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