Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Europe

George Melloan's "Global View," column this morning claims that "Nobody Wants a European Crackup." That may be exaggerated; Donald Rumsfeld's famous joke about "Old Europe" and "New Europe," if it meant anything, meant to highlight divisions between the pro-war "New Europe" and the anti-war "Old Europe." But that particular distinction never made any sense, and the Journal at least can justly claim to have been supportive of European integration, although perhaps more enthusiastically at those moments when it looks like integration might produce tax cuts than at other times.

Melloan spends most of today's article rebutting the claim that "America is trying to split Europe." The splits and crises in European politics are all the doing of Europeans, Melloan claims, and in no small measure the fault of the French and other socialists. If only other Europeans could be more like the pro-American Poles, he laments, the problems in Europe would be solved and the fractured Atlantic Alliance repaired.

Well, perhaps. At any rate, Melloan is surely correct that the future of European politics and European integration will be shaped by the decisions of Europeans rather than the actions of outsiders.

But in his catalog of European troubles, Melloan includes the assertion that, "the United Nations Oil for Food scandals have shown that the principle guiding France's defense of Saddam Hussein in 2003 may have been an appetite for Saddam's bribes among well-connected French businessmen, rather than the lofty motives professed at the time." Let's think about this for a moment.

The "Oil-For-Food scandals" are a bit of an odd hybrid scandal. There is real evidence of genuine misconduct, but the evidence has been so buried underneath an avalanche of self-dealing by Ahmed Chalabi and his equally dubious friends that the full truth of the matter may be nearly unknowable.

The short version of the scandal is as follows: when the "oil-for-food" program was established, ground rules were set that allowed Iraq to sell its oil on the world market at just under the world price. The proceeds went into a UN-controlled bank account that the Iraqis could use to purchase food and medicine. The first thing to say about the program is that it was established in response to credible warnings of widespread malnutrition arising from the quite draconian sanctions imposed after the invasion of Kuwait, and that it solved the problem. Incidents of deaths due to malnutrition or easily cured illnesses plunged after the program began, and it obviously did not open breathing space for Saddam to restart a nuclear weapons program.

But although the program worked, it also created multiple obvious opportunities for Saddam to game the system. Since he had access to what amounted to a slush fund of guaranteed oil profits that he could dispose of at his discretion, he predictably used that discretion sometimes to extort bribes from companies that wanted to participate and at other times to reward old supporters and recruit new ones with the lure of the oil contracts.

This is where the story stood at the time Baghdad fell, and for a little while afterward. Then Ahmed Chalabi popped up to announce that his Iraqi National Congress had discovered documents that proved that a number of western companies and politicians had taken explicit bribes (in the form of oil contracts) in exchange for their support of Saddam. Shockingly enough, all of the bribe-takers turned out to be Chalabi enemies, and Chalabi refused to allow anyone but his allies to look at the documents he claimed to have found. The INC's stage-managed "investigations" turned into low comedy, and it anyway takes a special sort of sucker to believe Ahmed Chalabi bearing "slam dunk" documentary proof of anything.

Nonetheless, real bribes were paid and real officials were corrupt (pdf). Did they influence French opposition the war? No one who has paid any attention to French politics over the last generation or so has many illusions left regarding Jacques Chirac's probity. And French politicians are as likely to have been influenced in their opposition to the Iraq War by the contracts that Saddam made available to French companies as American politicians are to have been influenced by the likelihood of US companies benefitting from post-war contracts. But is it really necessary, at this late date, to dream up conspiracy theories for why the French might have been opposed to war with Iraq? Does Melloan seriously suppose that the war has gone so smoothly over the last three and a half years that no objections save self-interested ones remain plausible? Individual opponents of war may have had any number of motives, but by now it is fairly clear to all but the most credulous observers of administration spin that the vast majority of the world's population that opposed the war did so because they accurately concluded that it was likely to be a fiasco.

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