Monday, 14 June 2010

“Backstabbing for Beginners”, by Michael Soussan (Nation Books)

Soussan-BackstabbingForBeginners An entertaining indictment of the UN, and its worst scandal

The year is 1997. Michael Soussan, an idealistic young graduate, has recently accepted his dream job at the United Nations’ Oil-for-Food Program, helping Iraqi civilians survive the impact of economic sanctions. Under conflicting guidance, he would help to oversee the use of 6.4 billion petrodollars against a backdrop of simmering international tension that constantly threatens to erupt into an all-out war.

An absolute beginner in the world of international diplomacy, Soussan finds himself embroiled in a world of spies, corrupt oil tycoons, and dysfunctional diplomats. Backstabbing for Beginners is at once an unsettling tale of one man’s political coming of age, and a stinging indictment of the hypocrisy that prevailed at the heart of the United Nations.

The first two chapters of the book deal with Soussan’s pre-UN career, working for Preston Gates – the lobbying firm that worked closely with Jack Abramoff, the super-lobbyist whose activities took down Speaker of the House Tom DeLay and almost President Bush. It’s clear that Soussan was sick of his work, horrified by what he had to do (such as the Saipan Congressional ‘Fact-Finding Mission’ he details), yet ultimately stuck if he wanted to make a decent salary. His desire to work for a good cause, luckily, was answered when a friend referred him for a job on the newly-established Oil-for-Food program at the UN. While he was originally delighted by the generous employment terms, his experiences as a lobbyist gave him pause:

“I would be a civil servant now. And I had just seen how easily such people could be bought..., manipulated and finessed into inaction even when serious moral issues were at stake. The line between serving the public interest and serving one’s personal interest was an easy one to cross. I would be on the other side of the fence now.”

Soussan has a realistic impression of those he worked with, and is not blinded by the high-minded intentions and mission statement of the organisation. Like all bureaucracies, it is riddled with inconsistencies, sanctimony, and contradictions:

“While diplomats jousted for the moral high ground in New York, lecturing one another on international law, those same laws were being violated methodically behind the scenes through an ever-increasing flow of crooked deals that cheated Iraq’s civilians out of an enormous share of their country’s wealth.”

The author writes about how he “saw the institution that was supposed to stand for international order break its own laws for seven years.” The UN Security Council, he explains, “operated much like a drug cartel”, and both the Clinton and Bush administrations had been “intimately aware” of the “massive fraud” taking place. The story of the Oil-for-Food scandal is a “tragic” one, which “highlighted some of the core flaws of our international system and the frightening, corrupting power of the black elixir that fuels the world economy.” In this book, Soussan offers the best treatment of this policy and time, in an engaging and entertaining format.

Soussan writes with a cynical wit that elevates Backstabbing for Beginners above the run-of-the-mill exposés and scandal books most commonly available. The author presents the reader with a behind-the-scenes account of one of the greatest scandals to rock the UN, one that shattered an already-shaky trust in the organisation’s ability to provide the support and policies it’s supposed to. He evocatively describes his various experiences in Iraq, in New York; the characters he meets (some earnest, some blatantly corrupt and opportunistic); and the contradictions and ease with which the system was abused and distorted to serve the interests of the few. All this makes Backstabbing for Beginners something of an ‘entertaining indictment’ of the United Nations.

“If all of us insisted that we really cared about the people of Iraq as much as we professed, then this story could only be described as a conspiracy of saints.”

A recommended read for all students of international relations and politics. This will particularly appeal to UN-sceptics.

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