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Ian Williams: Untangling the Oil for Food Knot

Ian WilliamsMichael Soussan's Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy (Nation Books, 2008) is a compelling, fascinating, and humorous account of his years working with the UN's Oil for Food program. This by no means a definitive account of the program, but rather a personal and highly impressionist view from an insider. But his impressions have the ring of truth for anyone who has observed the UN at close range and even more so for anyone who knows the characters with whom he worked. As a writer, he was blessed, since the Oil for Food program was short on gray bureaucrats and big on distinctively eccentric characters. In fact, he does not appear to realize just how much the pugnacity and stubborn-ness of his boss, "Pasha" Benon Sevan, may have been critical in getting the program up and running. If he had played by the bureaucratic rules, Iraqis would have been waiting for their rations while memos piled up on desks across the Secretariat. But eccentricity has its limits. There are echoes of Catch 22 in Soussan's narrative, not least of which is a female ex-PFC Wintergreen, "Cindy," the administrative assistant, whose attempt to secure promotion and recognition included fighting a war of bureaucratic attrition that at times almost brought the program (that was feeding the bulk of the Iraqi population) to a halt. Inexperienced and idealistic, Soussan soon realized that had joined "an organization riddled with internal turf wars, petty office politics, dramatic personal rivalries, and in our case, a shameless competition for control over more money than the UN system had ever seen."

Jens F. Laurson and George A. Pieler: Continuity We Can Believe In

When Barack Obama announced his Foreign Policy and National Security team, the best news was that journalists like Robert Dreyfuss, Leslie Savan, and Robert Kuttner weren’t impressed. Hoping for leftists in moderate’s clothing, they are now faced with a global affairs team that makes the President-elect look more like a moderate-conservative in liberal’s clothing. Hillary Clinton—judged by her Senate record and campaign positions on foreign policy—certainly appears more hawk than dove, though her all-too-clever triangulation on the Iraq did not serve her candidacy well. Either way, clearly she is someone most Republicans and Joe Lieberman Democrats (is there more than one?) can live with. Naming James L. Jones, the trusty marine and former supreme allied commander in Europe, as national security advisor spells continuity. On Iraq he has been publicly non-critical of the war itself but pointedly critical of its implementation and forward strategy. If one believes Bob Woodward (a coin-toss these days), Jones always opposed the invasion in private counsel. More importantly, he is a tough customer who won’t be run over like Condoleezza Rice was by Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Company in her hapless stint as NSA. And finally keeping George W. Bush’s nonpartisan Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is the epitome of “continuity we can believe in.”

Jonathan Power: Next Step—Obama’s Foreign Policy

Jonathan PowerRead more

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