WASHINGTON Jacques Chirac's scheme to win French companies fat contracts in reconstructing Iraq has run into realpolitik: anti-U.S. actions have consequences.
After a decade of opposing any pressure on Saddam to obey U.N. resolutions, France reversed itself after its favorite dictator was brought down. Chirac and his new ally, Vladimir Putin, let it be known they would refuse to lift U.N. sanctions on the sale of Iraqi oil.
Last week's Chirac-Putin ultimatum: If we don't get French-Russian contracts to rebuild Iraq, we won't let Iraq sell its oil. You suffer the casualties; we get the contracts.
France and Russia also want to keep under U.N. control the currently permitted sale of Iraqi oil, ostensibly to buy food and medicine for a majority of Iraqis. That's because the oil-for-food bureaucracy headed by Benon Sevan let Saddam steer billions in banking and commercial business to Paris, Moscow and Damascus.
The blatant hypocrisy of all this created an op-ed firestorm. In The Times, Claudia Rosett exposed the secrecy of the oil-for-food boondoggle, manipulated by Saddam to favor Security Council supporters. Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post excoriated Chirac's brazen flip-flop of opposing sanctions on Saddam and then insisting they be imposed on post-Saddam Iraq. My own tirade appeared in The International Herald Tribune, read in Paris by Quai d'Orsay's would-be Talleyrands.
As France appeared to be taking the moral low ground, Security Council diplomats became uncomfortable. Then France appeared to have been struck by sweet reason. Instead of ending sanctions on a regime that no longer existed, France floated a proposal merely suspending sanctions until the Security Council decides that the new post-Saddam Iraq is not making weapons of mass destruction.
Some compromise. That neat trick is designed to force the U.S. into gaining the U.N. inspectors' approval before sanctions are ended. It would keep a heavy U.N. foot on Iraqi pipelines and keep France in the reconstruction contracts business. Suspension would put the emerging Iraq in a class with Libya, still suspended after its downing of Pan Am 103.
Fortunately, Colin Powell is not about to be sandbagged again. State spent yesterday preparing a U.N. resolution to decisively end, not merely suspend, economic sanctions on Iraq. If carefully crafted, it should contain language similar to that of the oil-for-food resolution. That would guarantee that proceeds from future oil sales held in trust for the interim Iraqi authority would be immune from attachment by previous claimants.
In plain language, that means that sales of Iraqi oil sold starting now would be for rebuilding the nation, and could not be snatched by France and Russia to pay Saddam's old arms debts. Chirac and Putin won't like that a bit. Would either of them veto the will of a Security Council majority and stand before the Arab world as greedy obstructionists? Let's see.
Planners of the trust fund flowing from the end of sanctions should draw lessons from the Saddam-dominated, secretive U.N. oil-for-food mess. Barham Salih, a Kurdish leader, told The Wall Street Journal that "half of the money allocated to Iraqi Kurdistan never reached us, thanks to bureaucratic obstacles erected in Baghdad and supported by U.N. Plaza. . . . We could not pay a single teacher or doctor with this money, while oil-for-food largess went to Uday Hussein's National Olympic Committee."
U.N. Under Secretary Sevan admits that the French bank BNP Paribas was chosen to issue letters of credit to most of the favored suppliers, but brands as "inaccuracies" charges by Ms. Rosett and me of secrecy. He cites a hundred audits in five years. But details of which companies in what countries got how much that's not public.
The U.S. has a seat on the "611 committee," which supposedly oversees this $12 billion bureaucratic bonanza. Its reports should be available to Congress; Henry Hyde, the House's International Affairs chairman, is looking into that. Senator Arlen Specter of Senate Appropriations wrote to Powell yesterday about "reports that these funds are a slush fund," saying, "I urge the State Department to demand an accounting."
France hasn't seriously harmed the United States; we'll be friendly again. But in their hubristic drive for dominance in Europe, combined with their grubby grab for contracts, Chirac and his poodle Putin have severely damaged the United Nations.
By WILLIAM SAFIRE