Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Pools of Oil and Money: An Object Lesson for Barack Obama

The recently released book Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy by Michael Soussan is receiving little coverage by mainstream media. Could it be because the book provides an insiders look at the UN run Iraq oil-for-food operation and pulls no punches? The Paul Volcker lead investigation of the scandal found a scapegoat in Benon Sevon, and never went much further, despite indications that many others knew or benefited from the scam, including those close to the Bush Administration, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and Condoleezza Rice.

Volcker, like Colin Powell, has what I call delusional integrity. You can always count on men like them to put on a good show about integrity. They both come across as straight shooting men of integrity, most likely because they are delusional and believe they are men of integrity. Yet, at the end of the day, the real insiders know that the Volcker types and the Powell types will deliver what the insiders want. Powell will deliver a bogus speech about Iraqi WMDs and Volcker will know when to stop his oil-for-food investigation. One of Volcker's top investigators resigned because he felt Volcker was protecting Annan in the oil-for-food investigation.

Soussan suffers no such delusions. It is clear from his book that he is a straight shooter and tells it like it is. He was literally at the center of the scandal and gives us a play-by-play of what went on, like few others could. In short, bureaucratic in-fighting put lives of UN workers at risk for no good reason and created huge opportunities for bribery and theft to the tune of billions of dollars. Saddam skimmed cash everywhere, had UN workers on the payroll and co-opted many countries including France and Russia through bribe after bribe. In this book, you learn the details of how he did it and how he got away with it. And you learn about the other players, across the spectrum, that pocketed skimmed cash.

Soussan does not take the lessons of the oil-for-food scandal beyond the scandal itself , and this is a good thing. But there is a lesson here far larger than just the oil-for-food scandal that the reader can extrapolate from the book. It is about bureaucracy and money. Fredrich Hayek in The Road To Serfdom titled a chapter Why the worst get on top. In the chapter, Hayek's basic conclusion is that the worst get on top because the ruthless will do anything it takes to gain power. A corollary could very well explain why the worst circled the oil-for-food scam, and likely will circle any huge bureaucratically created pool of money. The most evil will do what it takes to get at the money. The oil-for-food scandal, as detailed, is an object lesson in how that happens.

Given that President-elect Obama is about to create a huge new pool of "rescue the economy" bureaucratic money when he takes office, it would not be a bad idea for him to read this book to get a sense for how a bureaucracy can get away from its goals. "The rescue the economy" pool has some characterstics that are different from the oil-for-food scam, but it has the one key ingredient, the creation of a huge pool of bureaucratic of money. The vultures are most certainly already circling the pool.

Soussan is not John Le Carre nor Frederick Forsyth when it comes to weaving a tale, but he doesn't have to be. He has fact not fiction to guide him. His sense of humor, ability to create suspense and paint a picture are all more than passable. His powers of observation are superior. Only a great observer could write these words, for example:

Freedom may be a political concept, but it is first and foremost a feeling. A breath of fresh air. A smile on people's faces. The absence of fear in their eyes. The difference between the north and the south [of Iraq] was palpable.
I visited Germany a year before the wall came down, and spent time in both West Berlin and East Berlin. The difference between the two was striking. The difference between what I saw in East and West Berlin is exactly what Soussan observed in the difference between North and South Iraq and, in his writing, he was able to turn this observation into what I consider a great universal truth about freedom. Freedom is more than just a political concept, it becomes who people are and what happens to their lives

There's a lot of curious things that go on in this world, one of them is why this book is not getting more coverage. If you want a real life play-by-play explanation of how a bureaucracy can get out of control and lead to mass scamming, this book is must reading.

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