Written from the perspective of an insider and a whistleblower, the highlights of Michael Soussan’s “Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy” – from these two positions, respectively – emerged when he first described his day-to-day responsibilities in the United Nations (UN), and later when the circumstances leading to the UN Independent Inquiry Committee were detailed. Against this background is the Oil-for-Food programme, established in 1995 following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, to allow Iraq to sell oil in exchange for food, medicine, and other humanitarian necessities for citizens. It was the largest humanitarian operation in UN history, “to help Iraq’s civilians without letting a cent of Iraq’s oil money go into Saddam [Hussein’s] pocket”, but inept observation and monitoring activities allowed petrodollars to be siphoned away.
Soussan went on to detail the mismatch between expectations of the programmes and the realities on the ground, of the logistical nightmares, of the inefficiencies of the UN recruitment system, and of the many political and geopolitical tussles involved.
Given the extensive media coverage of the scandal, especially when head of the Oil-for-Food programme Benon Sevan – or the bumbling “Pasha” in the book – was found by the aforementioned committee to have accepted bribes from the former Iraqi regime, I actually found Soussan’s exposition of the inner workings of the UN Secretariat more fascinating, such as the UN-written rules and the UN-ese of speeches and resolutions. The five UN-written rules, for instance, related to the notion of truth as a product of consensus, to not get stuck with the buck, that “the assistant of your enemy is your friend”, that even the paranoid have enemies, and to always be more polite than one’s enemy. Ludicrous as they were, they reveal an inter-government organisation which is rigid and inefficient, stymied by personal agendas, and ultimately one that does not inspire much confidence.
Many of these principles and conflicts within the UN are not unlike those faced by other organisations, until one remembers that this is a body imbued with more noble aims, from the maintenance of peace and security to the promotion of socio-economic progress. If this was the state of the grand Oil-for-Food programme, what about the other agencies and commissions? In this vein, at the nexus of the conflict between idealism and the realistic, bureaucratic, and institutional limitations of the UN is Soussan himself. Having started his UN endeavour bright-eyed and eager, in his later conversations with two younger aspirants, Soussan warned of transformations into “angry and paranoid bureaucrats” who did not get along with one another, and of a cruel game within the system “in which most players ended up feeling stabbed in the back at some point or another”.
A word of caution though. First-person accounts are inevitably biased, and therefore assertions need to be corroborated with the views of his colleagues. The tension becomes a little more evident in “Backstabbing for Beginners”, when the narrative shifts from Soussan’s time in the UN to that of the Iraq War, yet even so his observations – in my opinion – remained astute. Exclusive focus on the weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the war was indeed “a harmful distraction from the human dimension of the conflict”, in terms of the hard work in the aftermath of the war. And in a clever reference to Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express“, Soussan concluded that “the entire international community had been involved in the fleecing of Iraq”, through their direct complicity or passive inaction. Not an optimistic evaluation of the UN and its member states, and given the persistence of these structures, little seems to have changed.