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THOMAS OLIPHANT

...No, he's a scapegoat

WASHINGTON
NOW THAT virtually all of official conservatism and the Republican legislative juggernaut have opened up on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, with President Bush's winking acquiescence, it's time to explore a simple question: Just what is it that the guy has done? The answer is nada. It turns out there is no evidence that he did anything while the notorious and corrupted oil-for-food humanitarian program was operating in Iraq during the 1990s and beyond.

This lack of even a charge comes in the face of Annan's unequivocal denial that he ever had a single thing to do with, or any specific knowledge about, any of the deals made while the mess of a program was operating.

The latest headlines were generated last week by a freshman Republican senator, Norm Coleman from Minnesota, who chairs the principal subcommittee that has been investigating the program for months. Coleman called on Annan to resign.

Instead of showing that there is some groundswell of US political opinion against the secretary general, Coleman first showed a willingness to destroy the foundation of bipartisan diligence on which his investigation had previously been built. This is especially odd behavior because the investigation is nowhere near completed. Second, Coleman was illustrating the classic behavior of a politician who has no evidence in this scandal culture of ours -- claim that the questions raised by a probe that has found nothing on its subject nonetheless raise questions that compel his resignation.

The first thing that happened after Coleman got his headlines was that the ranking Democrat on the Senate's Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, Carl Levin of Michigan, split from his chairman to say there was no justification for calling on Annan to resign mid-investigation.

Instead of focusing on Annan, Coleman focused his justification on the widely known, shady business activities of his vagabond son, Kojo, who had been hired in the 1990s rather clearly for his name and not his ability by a Swiss firm with a contract to oversee parts of the program. The news event that preceded Coleman's stunt was the disclosure that as part of a termination agreement some years ago he retained health benefits that did not expire until early this year.

Annan has acknowledged his anything but unique appearance problem with his son (you would think President Bush, coming from a family that has fed at the trough for decades, would be kinder toward a guy with relative issues). He has also denied any knowledge of his son's specific activities, and there is no evidence to contradict him.

But here is what Coleman had to say last week: "There are growing, albeit unproven allegations that Mr. Annan himself not only understands his son's role in this scandal, but that he has been less than forthcoming in what he knew and when he knew it."

As a former prosecutor (and Democrat) like Coleman knows, the words don't parse. Just what are growing allegations that someone understands something?

Oil-for-food was a mess, and Annan made a world-class goof in appointing an apparently corrupt official to run it. Instead of easing the impact of UN sanctions on Iraqi civilians, the program was an opportunity for profiteering both by businesses and by Saddam Hussein.

The problem, as Senator Levin points out, is that the US government as well as the entire Security Council had complicit knowledge of just how dirty the program was. Members worked hard to make sure Iraq did not use earnings for weapons of mass destruction.

However, as Levin also points out, Presidents Clinton and Bush decided against cracking down on allies like Jordan and Turkey that were buying oil illegally from Iraq in violation of the sanctions regime, which makes current attempts to put the mess on Annan's shoulders borderline ludicrous.

In chiming in with a statement that US financial support for the UN is at stake, Bush is once again pitting his administration against the rest of the world, which has the odd idea that Annan should be attacked with evidence, not questions. Worse, he is playing get-even games with a critic just when the United States needs international help in Iraq and elsewhere.

Believe me, it is always tough to insist that the people Jesse Jackson used to call "allegators" meet minimal standards of proof. In time, however, I have a suspicion diligent investigators will report that oil-for-food was a worldwide disgrace, not a Kofi Annan scandal.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com. 

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