The inevitability of corruption (repost, crossposted at CT)
Scandals surrounding the Oil-for-Food program and postwar reconstruction in supply contracts, particularly with respect to Halliburton just keep on going. So I thought I’d repost this piece from six months ago, pointing out that it’s silly to try and score political points out of either of these.
Over the course of the Iraq war, a lot of opponents of the war have made a big noise about corruption among US contractors, the most common target being Halliburton. More recently, the pro-war blogosphere has been in an uproar over the ‘discovery’ that Saddam bribed a range of officials, including some in the UN, so that he could get kickbacks from the sale of oil, which was supposed to be used solely for the purchase of food and other essential imports. There has been a sense of baffled rage that no-one is much interested in pursuing these ‘discoveries’.
The scare quotes around ‘discovery’ reflect the fact that everyone who was paying any attention knew about this all along, and, indeed could deduce it from first principles. For example, in a piece on financing the reconstruction of Iraq written in May 2003, I observed
A return to normal output would yield gross income of around $US 20 billion per year at current prices, but most of this money was already being spent under the Food-for-oil program and most of it be needed for the same purpose in future. About 25 per cent of the money was taken to pay interest on debts associated with reparations for the 1991 War. If these were forgiven, some additional money would become available. In addition, it appears that Saddam managed to cream off $1 billion to $2 billion per year. If this were returned to the Iraqi people in general, it would make a small but positive contribution.
I didn’t bother to point it out, but it was obvious that Saddam could only get his cut by bribing those on the other side of the deal, that is, employees of the UN, the oil companies and the governments involved.
In the same piece, I made the point that the US contractors doing the work in Iraq were bound to charge a lot and deliver little, so that the cost of reconstruction would be far beyond the minuscule amounts that had then been budgeted. The appropriate response was not to complain about corruption but to accept reality and the need to spend a lot more money.
Iin both cases, it was, or ought to have been, obvious that the policy in question would produce corruption. That was why the US and UK initially tried to keep sanctions much tighter, with the result that thousands of Iraqi children died of starvation or inadequate medical treatment. Those who supported the Oil-for-Food program, knew, or ought to have known, that Saddam would take a large cut, and supported it anyway. Those who supported large-scale expenditure on reconstruction after the war knew, or ought to have known, that unscrupulous contractors would make a fortune, and supported it anywar. I’m happy to admit to supporting both policies, and to accepting corruption as one of the inevitable costs.
Having said all that, corruption is a crime and those guilty of it should be punished. But, unless you favor starving Iraqi children or doing nothing about reconstruction, trying to use either Halliburton or ‘UNSCAM’ to score points regarding the desirability or otherwise of the war is just silly.