Review: Petru Dumitriu
On 21 April 2004, the Security Council adopted resolution 1538(2004), the most embarrassing resolution in the history of the United Nations. The resolution appointed an independent high-level inquiry whose mandate was to 'collect and examine information relating to the administration and management of the Oil-for-Food Programme, including allegations of fraud and corruption on the part of United Nations officials, personnel and agents, as well as contractors, including entities that have entered into contracts with the United Nations or with Iraq under the Programme.'
In this book about the Oil-for-Food Programme, Michael Soussan presents an attractive version of his own on the facts revealed by the Independent Inquiry Committee, known as the Volcker Committee. The author does not compile information; rather, he is a witness and a protagonist, a journalist who had the chance to become a United Nations civil servant in charge of the Oil-for-Food operation.
The Oil-for-Food Programme was a strange creature, supposed to add a soft touch of humanitarian help to the strong arm of economic sanctions intended to hit mortally the regime of Saddam Hussein. The creature escaped the control of its master. An operation that started under an aura of superior sense ended in an obnoxious taste of corruption and misuse. Like biblical Jonas, Michael Soussan was swallowed by the great fish and later thrown out from the belly of the beast to tell us the story. The message he brings is probably more intelligible and memorable than the official reports of the Volcker Committee.
For those who respect and admire the work of the United Nations, Backstabbing for Beginners is a sad tale. Bureaucratic skirmishes, human weaknesses, cynical interests of member states, and professional flaws allowed diversion of the operation. The author leads us to the dark side of the Moon, to a world that is worth less than we may have thought. Alas, the picture includes people for whom working under the United Nations blue flag is just a career with no strings – like the belief in a superior good – attached.
Quo custodiet ipso custodes?
The detractors of the United Nations will find a description of the shameful guilt of permanent members of the Security Council who exchanged Iraq’s trade favours with political protection. We have disturbing revelations about how campaigners promoting the lifting of sanctions received rewards in the form of oil contracts. Soussan fetches all this information and adds a heavy condemnation of the possibility of any reform of the Security Council: 'a legal body whose members violated their own laws with impunity would not prove sustainable in the long run. Change was inevitable'.
The author is fully aware of the impact his testimony may have on the reputation and credibility of people who serve the United Nations. He wants to tell the truth, yet still to give us hope. The choice, as seen by the author himself, was 'between candor and cynicism'. He was too honest to suggest that his story was about a conspiracy of saints, but he tried hard to contain the damage, to confine it to a limited circle of individual states and isolated officials. From this perspective, the reasons that made the Oil-for-Food episode possible were 'not so much the lies we told one another but the lies we told ourselves'.
Although Backstabbing for Beginners is not the fruit of imagination, it is populated with unforgettable characters who may well be the heroes of a novel. Among them, the portrait of Benon Sevan, alias Pasha, is indeed a minute masterpiece, a proof of the narrative talent of the author.
Michael Soussan writes his book, as he should, from a lucid, critical, and moral position. Most of his conclusions and indictments may really be depressing. He says about his main 'hero': 'Pasha had been corrupted by cynicism long before he had been tempted by greed', while suggesting that Pasha might not be the only sinner of the kind. But he uses, in abundant quantities, an ingredient that makes the reading really enjoyable: humour. He depicts tense and dramatic situations with a fine irony. The writer’s pen is so friendly that even his indiscretions and idiosyncrasies carry a sense of tolerant understanding.
Chapter 14, entitled The Rules of the Game, is an absolutely delicious description of working relationships in what appears to be an ossified UN bureaucracy. The author seems to have ably digested and processed UN folklore produced in the corridors and in the cafeterias. The five rules described by Soussan, in a very alert and convincing style, reveal certain risks related to the (in)competence of some corners of the UN Secretariat. If I were the head of the UN human resources department, I would take the issue very seriously, and fight hard against those rules.
One more remark about the style of the author: he is quotable. Those who buy my invitation to read Backstabbing for Beginners would also like to buy a few quotable propositions. The US bombing of Iraq is kindly defined as 'the strategy to deprive Saddam of a functional society, rather than to deprive that society from a dysfunctional Saddam'. Here you have a smart paraphrase of a famous cliché: 'our policy toward Iraq was a continuation of war through other means'. Finally, a malicious remark about a Secretary-General’s report: 'many called it comprehensive, by which they meant it was too long and convoluted'.
By all means, Backstabbing for Beginners is a very fine book about a dramatic episode in United Nations history. The special introspection of a vulnerable UN freshman marries happily the inquisitive instinct of a journalist. The narration is animated by an appealing style, where truth, despite common wisdom, does not have a scratched face. After all, Michael Soussan spent very well his time with the United Nations.