Saturday, April 03, 2004

And the Real Culprits in Kofigate Are…

Oui, you guessed right: the Americans, bien sûr! That's the idea that comes from reading Friday's Le Monde. First of all, is this major international scandal (as has been noted previously, William Safire said, "Never has there been a financial rip-off of the magnitude of the U.N. oil-for-food scandal") important enough to warrant a place on the front page? Non! Beneath the main story (on Chirac's television appearance), the most important piece on the front page is about… an American supermarket chain (the largest in the world) and how… it strikes fear into the hearts of American consumers! (We're talking about Wal-Mart, here!)

We must turn to pages 2 and 3 of the newspaper of reference to read the news about Kofigate, plus three or four articles devoted to what one might have thought was the most important international story of the day. That's forgetting that the UN, at heart, is an organization devoted to the good of the world against evil, which is represented by Uncle Sam most often these days. Since good represents the ever-wise French, not too much must be made out of this story, and the aim thereof must in any event be deflected, si possible, against the Yankees. So rather than a story on the money-grubbing tendencies of the UN's representatives on the front page, better to have a story on an evil capitalist monster in an evil capitalist country.

As for the UN story itself — First sentence of the summary at the top of the page reads: "The United Nations organization is undermined by a credibility crisis." Another sentence: "Management of the oil-or-food program with Saddam Hussein's régime has been strongly criticized by certain American circles which denounce the corruption scandals" (my emphasis here, as throughout the article).

Remember how French media never fail to use the words lie and derivatives to blast away at the governements led by George W Bush, Tony Blair, and José Maria Aznar? When it comes to an organization, a country, a leader, or a system supported by the French, then suddenly gloves must be used: "Une polémique", "minée par une crise de crédibilité". Ouh-lala! Remember how, to them, it matters little or not at all who is hurling the charges against Bush, Blair, and Aznar, and how politics has little to do with the accusations? (That is entirely secondary to the fact that these leaders are bona fide villains.) Oh, but when it concerns a French friend or ally, then we must point out who the main accusers are, i.e., show how the latter are treacherous and perfidious. As the article makes clear, "certains cercles américains" refers to "the ultraconservative" Americans, while "the campaign is interpreted at the UN as largely inspired by the internal debate in Washington." That's a sweet addition, but why don't we read more in Le Monde about how the lie charges are interpreted in the Bush White House, on Downing Street, and inside the Partido Popular? Why can't they be called simply "controversies"?

The tone in the rest of the four articles (also devoted to two other UN crises — the Rwanda black box and security at the UN in Baghdad) is devoted to casting doubt on the intentions of Americans at every turn. "The corruption scandal linked to the oil-for-food program in Iraq is the one mobilizing most people in the United States." "Since January, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal has not spared its efforts." "A British consultant, Claude Hankes-Drielsma … has specialized in promoting this issue."

With regards to the black box, Le Monde's African specialist quotes Boutros Boutros Ghali as claiming that "the department of peace-keeping operations was strongly infiltrated by the American authorities." While Stephen Smith does not accept this accusation flat-out, his reluctance to do so seems to have more to do with wanting to defend Kofi Annan (the head of that department until January 1997) than with not taking Uncle Sam-bashing at face value. Indeed, referring to Rwanda President Paul Kagame, his article ends with this conclusion: Was the loss of the black box "a blunder or the result of American pressure to shield an African ally from international justice?"

The most insidious of the articles comes from Le Monde's UN correspondent and it concerns American firms that have also traded with Saddam Hussein. It starts right away by calling Americans duplicitous or fooled by their leaders' duplicity, while the French press stands strong, as a shining example to the American press. "The readers of Le Monde have known it for a long time, but those of the American press are not often kept informed thereof: American firms also obtained contracts and were susceptible to have handed over 10% to the régime of Saddam Hussein." As an afterthought, almost, the piece adds, "American firms had little chance to be chosen by the Iraqis. They went through their foreign affiliates, notably the French ones" (my emphasis).

You can also say that there is evidence of American GIs and British Tommies occasionally committing atrocities during World War II. Still, I would wonder about the intentions of a newspaper or a book that highlighted these in comparison to those, hundreds of times far worse, committed by the Nazis and the Japanese imperial army. The Corine Lesnes article goes on to say that "all the contracts with Iraq were examined and approved unanimously by the 15 countries, and therefore the United States." So, if there were over 10 billion dollars obtained illegally by Saddam Hussein and the UN's representatives, somehow it's America's fault too! And in any case, "everybody knew about it". Ergo, if Americans aren't malicious, they are idiots.

Suddenly the UN correspondent decides to ask a couple of questions: "Who overpriced the bills? Who pocketed the difference? Did Cotecna close its eyes and certify exports which weren't up to standards? Perhaps the investigation will say." Notice how the tone changes. What a jolly way to approach the issue. All so antiseptic. All so against-the-usual-Bush-bashing tradition. "A reliable source says that certain French contracts involving communications companies are being examined." See, French readers? Don't worry, don't doubt the French authorities. You can rest tranquilles, everything's being taken care of. Au contraire, if you want to worry about something, what you should worry about is… the American onslaught.

"Without furnishing concrete proof, America's conservative press, with a certain ardor, is implicating France." I thought ardeur was what France's press used on Bush, Blair, and Aznar, but never mind. Read on. One third of the article in the independent newspaper is dedicated to a letter that France's ambassador to the UN wrote to the New York Times in response to a column by William Safire. Not a word on the column itself, mind you. That would hardly interest anybody, would it? The newspaper of reference goes through every point of Jean-Marc de La Sablière's letter (in which he claims that shouldering the BNP in Iraq was the Chase Manhattan bank, that the percentage of French contracts with Saddam was pretty low, and that countries like Russia and Australia were more heavily involved), summarizing what "the diplomat… tried to explain to the American reader". Ah, if only ces Américains stupides would wake up, they would understand the reality of the situation and France's bonnes intentions.

The Lesnes article ends with the evidence of American infamy. De La Sablière's letter was not printed entirely in the paper! And the final sentence reads that the "diplomats were told that such statements needed to be 'verified'." Oh, American perfidie! "Verifié" is in quotation marks, to make the NYT's argument sound like a hypocritical excuse, but I have news for Corine Lesnes and the newspaper of reference, which want to give Americans lessons in journalism. In American periodicals, there is indeed a tradition of not printing a piece without first double-checking every part of it, with at least two sources for even the most mundane detail. And as a former fact-checker myself, I know to what extents one must go sometimes. In addition, I will add this: To me, it sounds like the Times did do their homework, and that if the editors didn't publish certain sections of the letter, it is because they found de La Sablière's arguments wanting or misleading (if not entirely false). But if I react that way, it is probably because, like most Americans, I am not as wise and intelligent and open-minded as the French.

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