Exploring the oil-for-food program, I was interested in the most recent major scandal that involved a number of respected politicians and diplomats. The scandal concerning corruption in the program, in my view, seriously shattered the reputation of the United Nations as an organisation capable of promoting peace on a global scale. The scandal alerted many people to the discrepancy between the professed ideals in global politics and the real political struggles. My interest is explained by the desire to test the implications of the scandal and alternative views and explanations such as could be presented by Aristotle and Machiavelli.
Before beginning my research, I knew that it was some sort of scandal related to corrupt schemes exploiting UN funds. I also knew that it involved UN leader, Kofi Annan, and his son. However, I was unaware of the scale of the scandal, the possible motives for the implementation of the oil-for-food program, and the politics of the West’s relationship to Hussein before the Iraqi campaign. Learning more about the issue, I realised that its exploration is vital for further development of the Western politics because finding out the causes and motives behind unethical actions can allow society to craft strategies to prevent fraud in the future. From another viewpoint, learning about why the West supported the tyrant while seemingly giving money to the poor people is crucial to the understanding of welfare and international aid. I was wondering to what degree helping poor nations is a bona fide attempt to help the disadvantaged, and to what degree leaders of industrialised nations pursue their own goals in implementing such policies. If we are to make an effective effort to correct the gap between the rich and the poor in this world, we have to understand how similar charity programs function and what principles motivate the actions of their participants.
The readings of Aristotle and Machiavelli in particular provided me with a necessary framework from which to analyse the problem. The principles described in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics including virtue, justice, firmness of purpose, will, the golden mean and others are a foundation for the assessment of the oil-for-food program. Using Aristotle’s principles, one can assess to what degree the program corresponded to them. Machiavelli’s work, in particular The Prince, provides quite a different set of principles and thus offered an opportunity to see the problem from a new angle, finding out if the founders of the program acted in the way Machiavelli prescribes to political leaders.
Search for information and focus
In the first place, I was eager to find out what really happened to the oil-for-food program. To obtain first-hand information, I referred to official sources, including the testimony of Bill Richardson, Secretary of Energy and Natural Resources, before Joint Hearing Committee on Foreign Relations Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, U.S. Senate in 1999, and statement of Joseph A. Christoff, Director of Internationa Affairs and Trade before the US Senate. While these documents represented information supplied by officials obligated to provide verifiable and accurate information, I remembered that these people could be themselves involved in the fraud. In this case, they would have an incentive to cover up facts and polish their testimonies.
To add a different focus to my research, I complemented official statements with media coverage and expert opinions, including that of Jeff Moore of Bainbridge Neighbors for Peace and BBC series devoted to Saddam Hussein. They helped me evaluate different viewpoints and arrive at the conclusion that the UN officials were most probably involved in the scandal to a greater degree than they wanted to recognize.
In applying Aristotle’s ideas to the oil-for-food program, I used the ethical system outlined in Nicomachean Ethics and applied it to the evaluation of the oil-for-food scandal. Trying to assess the moral implications of the program, I stated that it was a coin with two sides. On the one hand, the program was really helpful to millions of Iraqis saved from hunger through funds secured by the project; on the other hand, the widespread corruption that enriched Hussein and UN officials is clearly at odds with values advanced by Aristotle.
In order to prove that the program delivered benefits to Iraqis, I used the evidence of the program’s effect for ordinary citizens of the country, such as the purchase of $40 billion worth of humanitarian supplies from 1997 to 2003. To prove that it was harmful, I cited the widely publicised facts of corruption, defining their scope and effect. Applying the virtues described by Aristotle, I arrived at the conclusion that Saddam and UN staff failed to demonstrate the features of character that were desired by Aristotle. Instead, they proved to be unethical and violate people’s rights. In particular, looking at Aristotle’s recommendation to distribute property for the enrichment of many, I drew the conclusion that this was not the case with Saddam Hussein who had used his power to enrich himself and his accomplices in the fraud, appropriating over $21 billion.
I also evaluated the application of Aristotle’s idea that justice has be dealt with at a state level and arrived at the conclusion that Hussein and his subordinates violated this idea, too. Due to their preoccupation with their personal fortunes, they violated the rights of millions of Iraqi citizens, stealing the funds that could raise their living standards.
Thus, I concluded that because of these deviations from Aristotle’s ideas, the great philosopher would most surely be disappointed with the actions of Saddam Hussein and the UN officials. Although the oil-for-food program did have merit because it delivered food, medication, and infrastructure to 24 million people, it was nevertheless full of corruption and fraud. Thus, the leaders who implemented this program, acted contrary to Aristotelian values as presented in Nicomachean Ethics.
In the second essay, where I applied Machiavelli’s ideas taken from his most popular work, The Prince, I had to look at the issue from a totally different perspective. The ideas advanced by Aristotle and Machiavelli are very different, and the two philosophers differed on what they expected from a successful and moral ruler. Aristotle was more concerned with the behavior that most people today would find moral, stating that the leader has to act for the benefit of a larger group and uphold virtues in every case. In contrast, Machiavelli believed that it is acceptable for a leader to break some moral norms and act cruelly toward the people as long as it promotes the stability in the state. Overall, the “prince” depicted by Machiavelli is far less moral from our contemporary viewpoint that someone who would choose according to Aristotle’s ethics.
For this reason, Machiavelli could have a more benevolent view of the oil-for-food program that was de facto helping Saddam to stay in power. Looking at Machiavelli’s work, I found that although insisting that the prince had better be loved by his subjects, he nevertheless approved of tyrants that are at the same time courageous and have great ideas about strengthening the state. With a brief glance at the history of Iraq over time, I stated that, for all the cynicism of the statement, Saddam’s authoritarian rule was effective in suppressing the divisions in Iraq. While the nation is torn along many lines, I concluded that Saddam could have been the Machiavellian sort of leader who holds the state together with violent acts. That is why Saddam who with examples of cruelty could maintain stability in the nation does not seem so evil from the Machiavellian point of view.
The Western leaders may have shared this view because to them the type of leader who uses cruelty to promote order could have been of greater use than a democratic leader, powerless against inner unrest. The UN and the politicians in the West were also acting to pacify and support Saddam. Citing analysts’ opinions, I claimed that Saddam was convenient for the US despite declarations about his cruelty because he preserved peace in an important oil-rich nation. This situation fits well into Machiavelli’s discussion of real and stated goals. Thus, the West stated the goal to help the Iraqi people, in fact supporting the “convenient” dictator.
The situation does not fit better into one framework or the other, but discussing it from the point of view of Machiavelli or Aristotle does lead to different results. One can choose for oneself whose logic and ethical system is more acceptable.
The difficulty in applying Aristotle’s or Machiavelli’s ideas to the oil-for-food program lay in the difference between the settings in which both authors worked and modern-day political environment. In their days, international organizations such as the UN were non-existent; the highest degree of international cooperation was military alliances. The two authors therefore have little to say about helping poor people and the whole ethical framework of the issue. Their philosophy was primarily focused on internal politics and what the leader should do with respect to the citizens of the country.
Therefore, I had to assume that the principles the classical philosophers were willing to apply to internal politics are also valid with regard to international politics. I assumed that today there is a greater trend to see political leaders as having obligations not only to their own nations, but also to other peoples of the world, especially those that are poor and disadvantaged like the people of Iraq. In this way, the leaders of UN can be seen as in many ways similar to the Machiavellian “Prince” who is concerned with governing his separate state.
On the other hand, I also had to apply the ideas of morality to actions that were to a great degree undercover and did not always show clear motives. The people involved in the scandal were professing one set of ideals and in fact doing a thing that was different from what they were advocating. So I had to uncover their true motives and try to separate the good from the evil in the program that was tainted by scandal although it had also delivered benefits to a large number of people. There was a certain challenge in trying to separate the hypocrisy and the true desire to help people in the implementation and design of the oil-for-food program.