It doesn’t matter how beautiful something looks, how tall, how straight-backed, how gleaming.
If it’s rotten from the inside — if it’s corrupt — eventually that corruption will eat away at it, whatever it might be. Eventually the beauty and power will crumble.
Sounds melodramatic, doesn’t it? But it’s true.
When Michael Soussan was 24, “I was recruited to work for what would become the largest and ultimately the most corrupt humanitarian program in the history of the United Nations,” he said. That was the Oil for Food program; Mr. Soussan’s experiences with it — which he wrote about in “Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy” (a book, and now also a movie) and will discuss at the “Torch Talk” series for the Academies at Gerrard Berman Day School on May 23 (see box) — have led him to an even broader understanding of corruption’s corrosive force, and of how to fight it.
Mr. Soussan was born in Denmark; his father is a Sephardi Jew, born in Casablanca. “My grandfather was a merchant shipper who spoke eight languages,” he said. He lost everything during World War II — his ships were confiscated — so “he emigrated to Israel, where he met my mom, who had gone in the 60s and worked on a kibbutz. I was born in Denmark, and I can have a double identity.”
His name, clearly Jewish to many Jews, does not signify Jewishness to many non-Jews; he tells the story of someone, a Yugoslavian woman, who was paging through the Yellow Pages and asked his help in finding a dentist in New York. When he said that surely there is no shortage of New York dentists, the woman told him that while that is true, they all seem to be Jews, and that was not what she wanted. No Jewish hands in her mouth! So being a Soussan gave him a certain freedom not available to Cohens, say, or Levines, or Silvermans.
Mr. Soussan graduated from Brown University in 1996; he’d thought he’d become a lawyer, but the work at a Washington law firm he’d taken to help his chances of acceptance put him off the whole idea. “I got a little disgusted with the practices on Capitol Hill,” he said. “Of course it didn’t help that one of the clients of the group where I was working was Jack Abramoff,” the notoriously corrupt lobbyist who landed in prison. “I started looking for a job more humanitarian in nature,” he added.
“And then a friend of mine who had been to Brown with me called and said he’d just turned down at the job at the U.N. for one in the Clinton administration. He said it would involve going to Iraq.
“I didn’t quite know what to think about it — but I would pretty much do anything to be a do-gooder. At Brown, they teach you to be idealistic — but they don’t teach you how the world works. I had to find that out.
“So I went to New York, and I interviewed, and I got the job,” Mr. Soussan said. “I mostly got it because they couldn’t send U.S. or U.K. citizens, but my citizenship allowed me to go.”
So hello Iraq!
Iraq was under severe sanctions at the time. The conditions there were “drastic, because we had bombed it so much,” Mr. Soussan said. “All the water and sanitation systems were down, and the electricity grid was destroyed. There was no cold chain” — a temperature-controlled supply chain that allows for the safe delivery of medication — “in the country, so childhood and waterborne diseases spread quickly. It was a humanitarian catastrophe.
“We said that the war was against Saddam Hussein, but the civilian population paid the greatest price,” he added.
“So I thought the mission was worthy,” and remember, Mr. Soussan was only 24 years old. “I had a mid-level position — it was a lucky break, I thought at the time. The boss of my boss was the undersecretary general, Benon Sevan — who is referred to mostly as Pasha, because that’s the way he behaved. He lived to divide and rule.”
Mr. Sevan needed an assistant — someone who could “speak English and take notes and not challenge him,” Mr. Soussan said. “He wanted the greenest apple in the shop. That was me. So I got to go to Iraq and meet with Saddam Hussein’s henchmen, right up to the top, the minister of almost everything.”
The Oil for Food program sold more than $74 billion dollars of oil — a huge amount of money now, and an even huger amount two decades ago. “It was our job to see that the money was used to actually help suffering civilians. Our job — for which we ended up being paid a billion dollars — was to see that the money was used correctly, that the sale of oil was done without any corruption.”
“What really ended up happening was that the system was gamed, and in a way that was quite common not only for humanitarian organizations, but for any business done with dictators,” Mr. Soussan said. “There was up to 20 percent kickbacks; it went to Saddam and was split with the middlemen who made it happen.
“I saw violations of the sanctions — and of course they would try to violate the sanctions, we expected that — but I realized that we weren’t reporting it. I saw a problem with that, but it took me a while to understand what was going on.” To understand, that is, that the program, like the tyrants and enforcers with whom they dealt, was corrupt to its core.
But what he saw gnawed at him. “At first, it seemed to me that the program was working,” Mr. Soussan said. Yes, there was corruption, but it was worth it to get food to starving children. Later, he realized the corruption was vast, that Saddam knew exactly who he was bribing, and that the list was extraordinarily long, and included such companies as Haliburton and Texaco. “Texas and Tikrit somehow were in cahoots,” he said.
Moreover, he said, not only did much of the money go not for feeding starving civilians but for fattening already stout leaders, but “the quality of the food and medicines that the Iraqis did get were poor. They got expired medicines, they got soap that gave them rashes, they got food that made them sick. We didn’t quite explain in our reports that the quality was so poor because the middleman was taking all the money.”
“Keeping your mouth shut was a rule,” he said. “You train yourself to keep your mouth shut.”
He couldn’t. He resigned in 2001.
But now, Mr. Soussan says, he understands that corruption underlies and corrodes many of the relationships between the West and the developing world. “They see us as being complicit with their dictators,” he said.
“When we look at situations like the Arab spring, which began as a struggle against corruption — those are very legitimate complaints,” he said. The people who tried to overthrow their governments in the winter of 2010 “just wanted justice and a better life.
“By making ourselves complicit with the corruption they struggled against, we very easily become the enemy in the eyes of the young people who are recruited very easily.” That’s how Isis can flourish, he said.
“Another consequence of corruption is instability,” Mr. Soussan continued. “We are seeing more refugees sitting in camps than even after World War II. And every time there is a civil war that starts with anticorruption efforts, it is always minorities who pay the steepest price.
“We are also facing huge waves of immigration, particularly in Europe, which are very challenging to deal with,” he said. “It is very hard to identify who you are dealing with. Of course, most of these people have lost their homes, and they are just looking for a place to live, but given the ease of recruitment” — because they are unsettled, unhappy, homeless, rudderless, drifting, disoriented, lonely, in the middle of crowds of other people but often still alone — “that creates a problem.” In other words, the masses of immigrants, forced from their homes by the corruption that ate away at their society, provide groups like Isis with a target-rich environment.
“We are dealing with an entire generation of people at risk in the Arab world — and it will be a problem in Africa too.
“It is all about corruption, and it is the fault of the West.”
After he left the Oil for Food program, “I called for an investigation,” Mr. Soussan said. He wasn’t the only one; eventually, Paul Volcker, the retired chair of the Federal Reserve, who already had looked into a scandal at the Vatican, investigated. The U.N. could afford it. “There was money left over in escrow from the program that could pay for 30 investigations,” Mr. Soussan said; it cost $30 million. “Volcker found everything, down to the details about how the cash would transition from Baghdad to Riyadh through a diplomatic pouch,” he said. “Putin would use the program to pay everyone in the Duma.”
But now, Mr. Soussan sees the Oil for Food program, as monumental a heist as it was, as just one of many, if perhaps bigger than most. “I see the bigger picture,” he said. “The World Bank functions the same way. They have inflated contracts, they funnel the money out, and then the dictators stay in power as long as they can. They have massive amounts of cash abroad. The people understand this corruption very well.
“We have been playing the fool for too long” — ostrich-like, the countries of the moral West have been shoving their heads resolutely into the sand — “and now we are paying the price. The terrorism, mass migration, civil wars won’t stop. They are fed by the movements that feed on this corruption to create an ideological anti-Western vision.
“These ideologies existed before this corruption,” Mr. Soussan conceded — in fact, “they have some of their roots in the Islamic Brotherhood of the 1930s” — but now they feed on corruption and the West’s determination to look away.
“It is terrifying,” he said. “But I think the place to start the rollback, which inevitably the next generation is going to have to try to do, is to look at campaign financing, which has become a massive problem. So much of the country has become so disenfranchised.” That leads to corruption, he said.
“If we don’t look at corruption, we don’t advance the cause of freedom and stability and democracy,” Mr. Soussan said. “We will find ourselves facing greater challenges than we can imagine at home. But as long as we start to understand these relationships, then we will have some control over our government. And I think that we will have to do something about it starting at the local level.”
And that is possible, Mr. Soussan said. Change is possible.
“It sounds idealistic, but I have seen what it looks like to try the cynical route, and I have seen the result. I’ve seen it in Iraq. I’ve seen it in the Congo and Afghanistan. The alternative to idealism is even more dangerous.
“I don’t see myself as an optimist, but as a pragmatist. If we don’t seed our values, in terms of civil rights, women’s rights, human rights, we pay a steep price. So I am trying to illustrate the relationship between corruption and terrorism, and to create awareness of it.”
He is looking forward to discussing his ideas with students. “I am interested in hearing how kids think about it,” he said. “They are fighting their own fight for gun control. They have to be able to protect themselves in their own schools.
“It’s really quite simple,” Mr. Soussan concluded. “At the end of the day, if we simply ignore corruption, there is a price to pay. We might just think that there are random people who hate us for no good reason, but those people’s ideologies feed off our faults.
“Corruption isn’t just a question of money. It starts with our values, our ideas, and the lies we are prepared to tell not only each other but ourselves. It’s the lies we tell ourselves that get us in trouble, both individually and as a society. What we are seeing now is the rollback of democracy. It certainly has failed in Russia, and we are now looking at Hungary and Turkey — and maybe even the United States — right now.”
He is not an alarmist, Mr. Soussan said. It’s just that he has seen things that he hopes not ever to have to see again, and to ward that off he is willing to talk about those things with passion, even fury.
Who: Michael Soussan, author of “Backstabbing
What: Will talk about global corruption at
“Torch Talk” for the Academies at Gerrard Berman Day School in Oakland
When: On Wednesday, May 23, at 6:30 p.m.
Where: At Ramapo College’s Sharp Theater, 505 Ramapo Valley Road, Mahwah.
Why: To benefit the Academies
How much: Tickets start at $75
For information and reservations: Call Erica Kronick at (201) 337-1111 or email her at Ekronick@ssnj.org.
And also: Not only is the book available online, so is the movie; you can watch it on demand on Optimum Cable, DirecTV, or Amazon.