Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

A New-Look Security Council: What Makes a Winner? (November 11, 2003)
"The question of which countries might rightly claim new permanent seats is becoming less hypothetical. A group of newly emerging powers is already circling the chamber demanding a permanent presence."

Leveraging Private Money for the United Nations (November 3, 2003)
"Since the late 1990s, the U.N. Fund for International Partnerships has been playing matchmaker between small, innovative U.N. programs in need of cash and an increasingly wider world of private corporations and foundations willing to give them a boost."

U.N. and U.S. in Iraq: Nobody Won This Round (October 27, 2003)
"There is, in plain words, no great desire to help the United States out of a more difficult postwar period than the U.S. Defense Department apparently planned for."

AIDS, Asian Values and States of Denial (October 20, 2003)
"Asian leaders often acknowledge only that infections happen in what they call 'deviant populations.' Yet it is well known that sex industries across the region attract men from every level of society."

U.S. Rebuffs to Neighbors Should Raise Concerns (October 14, 2003)
"Ever since the epochal terrorist attacks on the United States two years ago, no two countries have been more important to American security than Canada and Mexico. So why has the United States been so indifferent to its neighbors?"

Testing the U.N. in Afghanistan, With Iraq in Mind (October 6, 2003)
"The United States has now given the Iraqis six months to conjure up a constitution.... In Afghanistan, time to write a constitution has run out. Nearly two years after the United States toppled the Taliban, the publication of the promised new charter is behind schedule."

Fighting AIDS by Changing Attitudes in Africa (September 29, 2003)
"Workers in government health agencies, private organizations and churches need every possible kind of logistical support to take the warning message out to people who do not know or do not believe that their own sexual behavior can save or condemn them."

More from U.N. Notebook.

U.N. Notebook | November 17, 2003
from U. N. Wire Oil for Food: A Great Experiment Ends

by Barbara Crossette

UNITED NATIONS—On Friday, without fanfare—since there is no longer a U.N. international staff presence in Baghdad—a great post-Cold War experiment in letting international sanctions bite without hurting an innocent population will end for the United Nations. It was called the "oil-for-food" program but it used Iraq's petroleum wealth to deliver tons of civilian goods of all kinds, as varied as medicines, sports equipment, musical instruments and spare parts for the oil industry itself.

In the last six years, the United Nations has managed more than $65 billion in Iraqi oil sales through escrow accounts designed to keep the money out of Saddam Hussein's control. More than $30 billion in goods and equipment has been delivered to Iraq, with another $8.2 billion still in the pipeline or in the process of being shipped as the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority takes over the program. An additional $2.1 billion remains in an escrow account waiting for orders. Oil earnings channeled through the oil-for-food program paid billions in compensation for victims of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. A small fraction of the income went to underwrite the arms inspection system.

The oil-for-food program wasn't perfect. It began late, six years after the Iraqi population was abruptly isolated by a crushing international embargo. The program got mired in international politics. It was manipulated by both the Iraqis and the West, particularly the United States. Circumventing it became the livelihood of an Iraqi underworld of well-connected smugglers and criminals who coarsened a once-cultured society, and whose malign influence will be hard to dislodge.

None of that, however, should obscure the essential value of the concept. Go back to the beginning. Sanctions were imposed on Iraq in August 1990, after Hussein's lunatic decision to invade and occupy Kuwait—only a few years after a punishing war with Iran, which he had provoked. There was no clamor for immediate military action in Washington. The Iraqis were given months to undo their Kuwaiti adventure while the Security Council waited and the United States steadily put together an international diplomatic and military coalition of amazing breadth. Time ran out in January 1991, when the liberation of Kuwait began.

The sanctions remained when the war ended, and Iraq was told there was no hope of having them lifted until Hussein's regime had verifiably destroyed its prohibited weapons—biological, chemical and nuclear, plus the missile systems to deliver them. Diplomats then on the Security Council thought this would take weeks or months. The world knows now that it never ended. Whether or not the United States finds banned weapons or production plants to make them, the fact remains that in more than a decade, U.N. inspectors were never able to give Iraq a clean bill of health.

By the end of summer in 1991, it was becoming obvious to some council members that the Iraqi people were going to face increasing hardships if Hussein insisted on defying the order to disarm. A prototype of what would later be the oil-for-food program was proposed, but was quickly rejected in Baghdad.

It was not until 1995, when Iraqi suffering was not possible to ignore, and the Clinton administration was beginning to feel some political heat from an anti-sanctions movement, that the current program began to take shape. Iraq—holding out for a lifting of sanctions instead—resisted the plan until December 1996, and the first goods did not arrive until 1997.

Sales of oil were at first limited, and purchases were strictly confined to bare necessities, at U.S. and British insistence. The rules were relaxed in stages over the ensuing years. After 1999, there was no limit on oil sales and the list of permissible imports was expanded to include almost anything except items with potential for military use. As the price of oil rose, Iraq had enough money by 2000 to feed all its people, I was told at the time by an official of the Food and Agriculture Organization (an agency sometimes criticized by other U.N. officials in Baghdad for being too pliant with the regime).

It is true that the United States continued to hold up orders for what others thought was an unacceptably large number of big-ticket imports that Iraq needed to improve services such as water, sanitation and electricity. But it is also true that Hussein did not always use the purchasing power he had in the best interests of his own people. Time and again, for example, he was urged by the secretary general to order more nutritional foods for mothers and infants. Shipments of crucial goods, including medicines and powdered milk, were held up at Iraqi docks, warehouses or in a quality-control process that could be turned off and on according to the regime's political whims. It suited Iraq's propaganda machine, which was having some success with good-hearted or gullible Westerners, to show a nation starving and sick.

Statistics mustered to prove the point—most memorably the 500,000 children who were reported to have died because of sanctions—were figures provided by the Iraqi government, which also controlled distribution of needed goods in the central and southern regions of the country, with the United Nations left to do mostly paperwork.

In the northern Kurdish areas, where U.N. agencies ran development projects and distributed goods directly, clinics operated, children's health was measurably much better than in the rest of Iraq, minimum daily caloric needs were exceeded and life and commerce were at near-normal levels. The Security Council had earmarked 13 percent of oil-for-food money for the Kurds, who had been abused by Hussein. The United Nations directed the aid where it was needed, with minimal Iraqi government interference.

In Baghdad, moreover, it soon became apparent to international officials and among companies trading legally with Iraq that oil sales and purchase contracts were subject to demands for kickbacks of about 10 percent, providing Hussein and his inner circle untold wealth in contravention of sanctions. Meanwhile, oil was being smuggled out and consumer goods smuggled in. Any reporter traveling to Baghdad from neighboring Jordan could see the black market in operation. Medicines, imported beauty products, computer parts and even mundane household items such as insect repellents were available in many Iraqi shops.

Certainly, people did suffer. Most families did not have enough money to buy consumer goods, spare parts for their appliances or the ample produce, eggs and meat on display in the markets. They became dependent on the "food basket" of rice, flour, sugar, tea, milk, cooking oil and beans or chickpeas supplied by the oil-for-food program. New clothes were almost unknown; holidays were sad affairs for parents and children when there was no dressing up, no gifts to give or feasts to enjoy. To add to the isolation and low morale, sanctions cut off international postal service. Books, magazines and academic material much needed by the universities and schools were largely banned.

The oil-for-food program could never solve all the problems of Iraqis, but many people were kept alive because of it, despite Hussein's worst intentions and his squandering of public money on palaces and foreign bank accounts.

Thus as this novel program draws to a close, two factors that led to its creation should not be forgotten. First, that sanctions—the Clinton administration's weapon of choice in dealing with rogue governments, including also Afghanistan—seemed preferable to military action. At the end of the Cold War, a world of new possibilities for international cooperation short of military options opened for the United Nations. Hopes were high that the Security Council could work creatively with new, nonmilitary tools. But the world has learned that the most potent of those tools—sanctions—cannot be enforced forever if they are not budging an outlaw regime. Sanctions are degraded if they are not periodically re-evaluated and rigorously policed.

Second, there was always a desire in the Security Council and the Secretariat to temper the effects of sanctions on Iraqis, and Hussein almost always stood in the way. Officially, Iraq did not want help. It chafed under international restrictions and toughed out arms inspections by giving away as little information as possible.

Again and again Iraqis would tell the United Nations that the country could take care of itself and wanted nothing more than to have its sovereignty back. Sounds familiar.

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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see

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