Oil-for-food and European opposition to the war in Iraq: Separating conservative talking points from the facts

››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

Since word of the United Nations' oil-for-food scandal first broke, conservative media figures have been quick to conclude that European nations and political figures that opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq did so because they were bribed by deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Although there is evidence that some political figures from European countries may have been complicit in the scandal, conservatives who have pushed the scandal as the key explanation for European opposition to the war have made assertions unsupported by, and often at odds with, the facts. While some conservatives have specifically accused European leaders of failing to support the war in Iraq because of their alleged interest in the scandal, to date no credible body has directly accused any of wrongdoing.

Conservative misinformation on European leaders' links to the oil-for-food scandal is nothing new. For example, on the July 29 edition of FOX News' The O'Reilly Factor, FOX News political analyst Dick Morris asserted that "it's been proven that [French President] Jacques Chirac and [Russian President] Vladimir Putin got personal bribes from the oil-for-food program. What could you have done as president to persuade them to dump Saddam Hussein, their benefactor?"

Below is a summary of what conservative media figures have said in the past week about European nations' and leaders' connections to the oil-for-food scandal, followed by the actual facts up to this point.

Although there is evidence, which merits investigation, that individuals, companies, and political parties from several European nations participated in the scandal, conservatives who have concluded that those countries' political leaders benefited from oil-for-food and -- according to some -- were thereby influenced to oppose the Iraq war are often at odds with the presently known facts. Although conservatives have attacked China less than they have European nations, several have asserted that China also opposed the Iraq war because of corruption relating to the oil-for-food scandal.

Below is a summary of the evidence that exists for Germany, France, Russia, Britain, and China's roles in the oil-for-food scandal:

Germany

Limbaugh's claim that Germany was "bribed" into opposing the war in Iraq is completely without support, as Media Matters for America has noted. Although some German companies and individuals benefited from the scandal, Germans accounted for no more than 3 percent of the recipients of Saddam's illicit oil vouchers, meaning Germans likely profited no more (and possibly less) from the scandal than Americans did. Further, no significant German political officials were among those named in an initial list of 270 individuals and entities implicated in the scandal. Nor were any named in Charles A. Duelfer's comprehensive report on Iraq's weapons programs or included on that report's list (Vol.1, annex B, p. 302) of "Known Oil Voucher Recipients." The Duelfer report does not support Hannity's claim that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was complicit in the oil-for-food scandal -- Schroeder was not accused or even mentioned in the report.

France

Morris's claim that it has been "proven" that Chirac was complicit in the oil-for-food scandal is not supported by the Duelfer report. Although political officials connected to the French president are implicated in the Duelfer report, the report did not accuse Chirac of improprieties. The report does not even allege that Chirac was aware that any corruption was taking place.

According to the Duelfer report, 15 percent of Saddam's illicit oil vouchers went to French individuals and companies, the second most of any nation. As Media Matters has noted, the Duelfer report named Patrick Maugein -- chairman of oil firm Soco International with ties to Chirac -- as a recipient of vouchers from Saddam (although it could not confirm that Maugein was a conduit for Chirac). Further, the report noted that the Iraqi Intelligence Service (IIS) "targeted a number of French individuals that the Iraqis thought had close relations" to Chirac, "including, according to the Iraqi assessment, the official spokesman of President Chirac's re-election campaign, two reported 'counselors' of President Chirac, and two well-known French businessmen." The report also named former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua among the voucher recipients.

The report also documented that a May 2002 IIS memo addressed to Saddam indicated that a French parliamentarian assured a member of the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) that "France would use its veto in the UNSC [Security Council] against any American decision to attack Iraq." But the report does not allege that Chirac himself accepted bribes or was convinced to oppose the war by Saddam's apparent efforts to bribe his associates.

Russia

As with Chirac, Morris's claim that it has been "proven" that Putin was complicit in the oil-for-food scandal is not supported by the Duelfer report. While several Russian political officials with ties to Putin have been implicated in the scandal, the Duelfer report does not accuse or even mention Putin, and does not allege he was aware of the corruption.

Nonetheless, Russian individuals and companies received 30 percent of Saddam's oil vouchers, the most of any country, according to the Duelfer report. As the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations has noted, among the Russian recipients were Russian Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky ("and companies associated with his party'), as well as former Russian Chief of Staff Alexander Voloshin, chief of staff under Putin until October 2003. A July 10 Moscow Times article also included "the pro-Kremlin Unity party" and the Communist Party among the beneficiaries of vouchers, according to "a leaked document from the Iraqi Governing Council" and quoted an unnamed "senior Western diplomat" who emphasized that the Russians' appearance on the list of voucher recipients does not prove "they were complicit in making funds available [to Iraq]."

Although the "ultra-nationalists" who make up the Liberal Democratic Party "mostly vote" with Putin, as the Economist noted on December 9, 2003 (following the Russian election), the party is not directly aligned with the Russian president. Putin is not a member of any political party, and is most closely allied with the United Russia party (formerly the Unity party). Zhirinovsky has denied the oil voucher charges, according to the Moscow Times.

Britain

With Germany and the United States, the Duelfer report (Vol. 1, p.166) names Britain among the nations included in the approximately 20 percent of "recipients from other nations" of Saddam's oil vouchers, although the report does not quantify the exact percentage of vouchers that British individuals and companies received. Independent British Member of Parliament (MP) George Galloway is included on the initial list of 270 oil voucher recipients, which independent Iraqi newspaper Al-Mada published on January 24. Galloway was expelled from the Labour Party on October 24, 2003, after denouncing the war in Iraq; referring to President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair as "wolves" for invading the country; and allegedly "incit[ing] Arabs to fight British troops" and "incit[ing] British troops to defy orders." On December 2, Galloway won a libel suit against the Daily Telegraph after the British newspaper accused him of being on Saddam's payroll.

Even if Galloway was involved, it is unclear whether or not he or any other MP was involved for personal profit or was even aware of the corruption of the oil-for-food scandal. As The Guardian reported on February 17, "Money illicitly siphoned from the UN oil-for-food programme by Saddam Hussein ... went to three businessmen who in turn supported [anti-sanctions] pressure groups involving ... Galloway, Labour MP Tam Dalyell, and the former Irish premier Albert Reynolds." But as The Independent noted on July 30, "There is no suggestion that any British MPs profited personally or knew about the alleged corruption."

China

According to the Duelfer report (Vol.1, p.166), China received approximately 10 percent of Saddam's oil vouchers, the third most of any nation. But the report does not implicate Chinese President Hu Jintao, or even allege he was aware corruption was taking place. He is not mentioned in the report.

As the Wall Street Journal reported on November 9, one Chinese individual on the list of voucher recipients was "Huang Ruzhen, a former deputy general manager of arms maker China North Industries Corp., or Norinco." The Journal noted that Ruzhen -- who was identified as "Mr. Joan" on the "secret list kept by Mr. Hussein's regime" -- "said he negotiated for the vouchers only after having received permission from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the U.N. committee supervising Iraq's oil-for-food program." The Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed that Chinese companies signed contracts with Iraq but said those contracts were legal and in accordance with the rules of the oil-for-food program. As the Journal reported, "Mr. Huang said he did nothing for Iraq in exchange for the vouchers he received. Nor was there any implication by the Iraqi side that they expected anything in return, he said."

On November 14, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for management and reform, Patrick F. Kennedy, testified before a House committee in October that "China, France, Russia, Syria and other governments, which represented companies competing for billions of dollars' worth of business, stalled measures aimed at ending corruption" of the oil-for-food scandal. On December 6, the Chinese government "called for a swift resolution to the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal, saying it wanted to see an independent and objective investigation."

Finally, it should be noted that, as democratically elected leaders of their respective nations, European leaders' political opposition to the war in Iraq likely stemmed in part from a response to public pressure. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) noted on February 11, 2003, citing public opinion polls taken just weeks prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, that "the majority of people across the [European] continent are united in their opposition to war."

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
Stories/Interests
Oil-for-Food Program, United Nations
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.