Entries from January 2005

The End Of The Transatlantic Affair

David Frum January 31st, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Over lunch at a Washington think-tank some time ago, a high-ranking German official told the room about his country’s determination to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The reaction? From the Americans present, indifference verging on boredom. For the Europeans, though, it was as if the official had dropped a concrete block on their toes.

It was a fascinating moment of culture clash that demonstrates some ominous truths about American-European relations. The first truth is the traditionalism of American policy elites. Even when the evidence is thrust into American faces, it is hard for them to accept that things have changed in the old alliance. From 1947 until 1991, US-European relations were guided by the rule that America would provide the protection and Europe the deference.

With the collapse of Soviet military power, the deal became obsolete. Yet this large geopolitical change has made little impression on American policy elites. Indeed, John Kerry won the backing of almost all of this elite by running a presidential campaign that promised that the alliance could be restored with just a few sweet words.

So, the colossal fact that Germany is no longer willing to trust the US, Britain or France to represent its interests in the Security Council – that its leaders believe themselves to have achieved a status equal to that of the US, Russia and China – elicits nothing more than a ho-hum from Americans. Despite the confrontation over Iraq, despite German technology sales to Iran, despite the enthusiasm of Germans for the conspiracy theories of Michael Moore and Andreas von Bulow (polls show that one out of three Germans under 30 believe the US government staged the attacks of September 11 2001), Americans continue to believe that the Europe and the Germany of 2005 are the same as those of 1985.

The second truth revealed by the think-tank anecdote: the cracking faultlines within Europe. Non-German Europeans understandably regard the German pursuit of a Security Council seat as a betrayal of the European ideal. The British and French seats might be shrugged off as remnants of an earlier era, to be subsumed in time into a European seat. But for the biggest state in Europe to demand representation in its own name raises serious questions about the role of the EU and its other members.

This was another of the lessons of the Iraq confrontation: the big European states, and especially France and Germany, do not truly regard the others as their equals. Jacques Chirac, the French president, clearly expressed this view in his famous reply to the 13 European states that signed a pro-American declaration in February 2003: they missed a good opportunity to keep quiet. Thus far, the Germans have been more tactful. But their pursuit of an independent Security Council seat declares their true feelings as plainly as if Gerhard Schroder, the chancellor, had repeated Chirac’s words verbatim.

So where do we go from here? It would seem at a minimum that the smaller states of Europe need to think about the differences between the Europe they were promised and the one they are getting. Americans, meanwhile, face first a painful task and then an interesting one. The painful task is to accept the reality that Europe is drifting away. The sometimes hysterical aversion of many in Europe to George W. Bush is not the cause of this drift. It is a manifestation of the drift, and maybe even a way to silence any guilt that Europeans feel about abandoning an old relationship from which they benefited so much.

There is a tendency to assume that everything that happens in the transatlantic relationship happens because of America: that it is always America that acts and Europe that reacts. This assumption no longer holds in the post-cold war world. It is European leaders, not American ones, who are loosening transatlantic ties, and as much as this saddens Americans, there is little they can do about it.

The interesting task that follows the painful one is to devise new policies in response to this new reality. A cynical American might demand that any German application to the Security Council should be considered at the same time as applications from Japan (the world’s second-largest aid donor), India, Brazil and probably also from an African and a Muslim-majority country. The council would then expand from five to 10, or maybe a dozen members. But the bigger it grows, the more useless it will become, and the less of a restraint on great military powers. Since there is only one such power at the moment, Germany’s application translates into greater US freedom of action.

Alternatively, the US could consider a more idealistic approach. Maybe the German government feels little regard for the interests of the smaller states of Europe. That could be an opportunity for the US to demonstrate more regard. Perhaps the US could form, outside the UN, an informal caucus of democratic states, not only European but also Asian and Latin American. In this caucus, issues could be debated with less posturing and fakery than at the UN. This forum could reassure democracies without a Security Council seat that their interests will be championed by the one country with the power and the breadth of vision to speak up for something other than its own immediate interests.

Whatever course America takes, the world has arrived at a turning point. Everybody else seems to realise it. It is time for Americans to notice it too.

Will A Rising Loonie Sink Martin’s Ship?

David Frum January 25th, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

What is Paul Martin thinking about as he jets around the planet? We can’t know, but here’s my guess: He’s thinking about money.

Not his own money — as the old joke goes, Martin’s fortune is big enough to look after itself — but the unit of money itself, the once-pitiful, now mighty Canadian dollar.

The Canadian dollar has risen by almost 20% since the spring, to about 82 cents, a level last observed in the early 1990s. No other U.S. trading partner has seen its currency appreciate so rapidly: Two of the most important, Mexico and China, have actually seen declines.

Even at 82 cents, the Canadian dollar remains well below its traditional value compared to the U.S. dollar. But who remembers that ancient history? The dollar has traded below 75 cents for more than a decade, and often closer to 60 cents.

At those low, low valuations, life has been easy for Canadian exporters: Canada enjoyed a US$62-billion trade surplus with the United States in 2004.

Life has been easy too for Canadians with assets to sell, whether they be Muskoka cottages, oil-drilling rights or shares of newly launched Canadian companies. Since 2000, Americans have invested 10 times more money in Canada than they have in China.

The flow of goods south and money north has sustained Canadian prosperity at an otherwise difficult time. The Toronto-Dominion Bank’s chief economist, Don Drummond, reported last month that the real after-tax income of the average family has barely increased since 1989. The growth in the Canadian economy was powered not by hard-pressed consumers but by trade and investment.

But as the U.S. dollar buys less and less in Canada, Canadians will find it harder and harder to sell to dollar-holders. Canadian exports to the United States will dwindle; American capital investment in Canada will slow; and the Canadian economy will sputter and falter.

None of this is to argue in favour of a return to the cheap Canadian dollar. To the contrary: Canadians are now discovering what a cruel hoax the Chretien government perpetrated by trying to devalue Canada to prosperity.

But you have to understand the danger posed by a rapid and unexpected climb in the loonie to understand Prime Minister Martin’s bizarre political manoeuvres over the past week.

When Martin won his minority government last summer, he must have calculated that he had a long time in which to prepare for the next election. Neither the NDP nor the BQ wanted a quick return to the polls, and it seemed reasonable to count on 24 months or even 30 months till the next vote.

Quite suddenly, that calculation looks obsolete. Martin has to fear that the Canadian economy could tip tomorrow into recession — possibly severe and prolonged recession. He may calculate that an election in March, 2005, would serve him better than an election in March, 2006. But how to justify such an election? How to avoid looking cynical and opportunistic?

This may be the chain of thinking that led the Prime Minister to start talking about an early election on the same-sex marriage issue — sorry, not same-sex marriage, but rather the “defence of the Charter of Rights.”

The Charter has acquired real prestige and popularity in Canada. Canadians might just possibly be led to accept something they dislike, such as same-sex marriage, if it can be repackaged as a Charter right.

And, again just possibly, they might also be persuaded to re-elect an otherwise undeserving government if it could be repackaged as a Charter defender.

This plan may not be a great plan — but it’s a heck of a lot better than staying in office to be politically pummelled by a slump in the Central Canadian manufacturing economy. The Canadian Automobile Workers union notes that 100,000 Canadian manufacturing jobs have been lost since the dollar started to rise in November, 2002; the CAW also says that 17,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in the month of December, 2004 alone, and predicts that, at 85 cents, as many as 400,000 manufacturing jobs could be lost by 2007.

Canadians might just possibly forgive a government that got caught in a genuinely global or at least continent-wide downturn. But in a dollar-driven downturn, the Canadian economy would slump even as the United States boomed. And that is a contrast no Canadian prime minister can survive — unless of course he happens to be sitting upon a safe majority with five years to go before the next election call.

Paul Martin made his recent statements on same-sex marriage, Charter rights and the next election while he was in China. Perhaps that is why his words need to be translated into plain English, like so: “I need to call an election before the economic roof falls in. Same-sex isn’t much of an issue, but it sure beats ‘Where did all the jobs go?’ Maybe I can’t save all those other jobs. But I sure intend to do everything I can think of, no matter how desperate, to save mine!”

It Was Always About Him

David Frum January 18th, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Not since George Brown has a Canadian journalist wielded such direct political power as Peter C. Newman did in his prime. His reporting helped destroy two prime ministers (Diefenbaker and Pearson) and contributed to creating a third (Pierre Trudeau).

Now Newman has written a memoir of his extraordinary life, Here Be Dragons. Because of Newman’s huge impact on Canada, the book is being read avidly. Because of Newman’s famously long memory and equally famously thin skin, it is being reviewed with circumspection.

That circumspection does the book-reading public a disservice. There is a great deal to be learned from Peter Newman. None of it will be learned by taking his story at face value.

Newman alerts the reader to his own unreliability in the opening pages. It’s the late spring of 1940. He is 11, hiding with his family on a French beach waiting for the steamer that will take them to England. “Suddenly the banshee wail of a Junkers Ju-87 Stuka of the Luftwaffe pierced the night air. … I stared — transfixed — up at the pilot. Planes were much slower in those days, and I vividly recall glimpsing the pilot’s face as he climbed out of his run. He had turned on the cockpit light — after all, there was no one shooting at him — and I could see his countenance clearly through the canopy glass.” Newman then proceeds to offer a lengthy meditation on the character revealed by the pilot’s heavy features.

Planes were indeed slower in the 1940s than they are today. But the laws of optics have not changed at all. In 1940, as in 2005, a pilot who turned on an overhead light inside a plane flying at night would have blinded himself. The story is vivid and even moving, but false.

Peter Newman earned national fame as the most lethal Ottawa columnist in Canadian history. By good luck, he arrived in Ottawa at almost exactly the same moment as the most chaotic government in Canadian history: John George Diefenbaker’s. The cabinet rapidly broke apart into warring factions, and Newman — then as ever a superb sleuth and beguiling interviewer — winkled out one amazing story after another. The ultimate result was his 1963 bestseller, Renegade in Power.

Renegade finished off John Diefenbaker’s reputation in the elite world of the central Canadian media — and not so coincidentally it made Peter Newman’s. Or rather, it made the reputation of Peter C. Newman: As he shrewdly acknowledges, the addition of that middle initial to his byline announced the birth of a new personality. “I created it; I chose it; but in the end it was not me.”

Who was this created character? He was an impoverished Czech Jewish refugee, condemned to perpetual outsiderdom by a WASP ruling class “that lined the halls of their … Rosedale or Westmount mansions” with “musty portraits of their ancestors.” Peter C. Newman’s awe of these golden creatures would provide the breathless background for his most commercially successful series of books, those on the “Canadian establishment.”

But one suspects that Peter Newman, the writer not the character, understood this was all bunk. Peter Newman the writer came from a background grander than that of almost any of the Rosedalians or Westmounters he wrote about. One detail that Newman always emphasized in his anecdotes about Conrad Black was that the young Black was delivered to school by a chauffeur-driven limousine. But back in Czechoslovakia, Newman too had once been chauffeured to school — and unlike Black’s, his family’s car was the only car in town.

The interplay between the insinuating humility of Peter C. Newman on the one hand — and on the other hand Peter Newman’s inner knowledge that in intellect, drive and accomplishment he was the equal and more than the equal of the Titans, Acquisitors, and Inheritors he publicized — provided the strange tick-tock energy of Newman’s career.

Again and again in this memoir, Newman talks about his compulsion to use his literary gifts first to build up his eventual targets — and then to smash and destroy them. Yet no matter how unjust he was, no matter how cruel, Newman never lost his conviction that it was always he who suffered most. Which is how it is possible for him to write a chapter on the triumphant success of Renegade, carefully detailing how utterly it overthrew Diefenbaker, how many copies it sold, how much he was paid for the ensuing speaking engagements, and then to conclude by self-pityingly quoting his friend Dalton Camp, “the true victim of Renegade in Power was not Diefenbaker, but Newman.”

Here Be Dragons is itself a perfect example of the Newman method. If any one thing is selling this book, it is the promise of scandalous revelations about Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel. It was Newman who made Black and Amiel into celebrities in the first place: Black, by dubbing him the Establishment Man in a best-selling book of the same title; Amiel, by giving her a prominent column in Maclean’s. Today, Newman has new purposes, and so in this book he gleefully savages his old friends.

In the end, though, the supreme target of the Newman tick-tock method is Canada itself. If Peter C. Newman the public figure stood for any one thing, it was his passionate patriotism, his burning love for Canada. So exuberant is his devotion that it supposedly puts to shame his more demure fellow-countrymen. Newman writes: “Americans wear their hearts, and their flag, on their sleeve. In the Canada I love, even the mildest display of open affection for one’s home country is seen as an eccentric curiosity, if not a dangerous aberration. Americans are the eternal honeymooners, proclaiming their love from the rooftops; we are the long-married couple, expressing an ocean of sentiment in a shy smile.”

It is I think deeply revealing that the thrice-divorced Newman should compare his patriotism to marital love. There was a play on Broadway a decade ago with the brutal title I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. That is exactly the attitude that Newman took toward Canada. He loved everything about it except its flag, its national anthem, its excessively White Anglo-Saxon Protestant governing elite, its post office boxes, its Westminster system of government, its north-south patterns of trade, and so on and on and on. All would have to be transformed and brought up to date in one expense-be-damned spasm of reform.

The spasm was unleashed in 1965 and its consequences reverberate to this day. The primitiveness of his thinking about economics reveals how Newman could have been so badly misguided. “In exchange for our borrowed American affluence, we sold our way of life to the highest bidders.” It would be hard to cram more economic nonsense into a sentence than that one there — but over the years from 1965 to 1985, Newman and those who thought like him kept trying.

Newman now lives in London and Zurich with his fourth wife. The Canada he left behind bears only the faintest resemblance to the British Dominion to which he migrated in 1940. Peter C. Newman was one of the chief architects of the work of demolition and reconstruction that has preoccupied Canadians for the past half century. He says he was impelled by love. But it is hard to see what he would have been done differently if his motive had been rage.

Newman, as I said, is a candid writer, but not always a trustworthy one. Yet in one of those famous early morning writing sessions of his, he for a moment at least allowed the truth to slip out through his careful fingers:

“Why all those big fat books? Because I thought that if I could steer the head, the rest of the body would follow. I was no passive player, no deferential nomad begging for refuge: I set out to make my adopted land the sort of place I could trust — a liberal, tolerant, and independent Canada … The regional battles of my adopted country meant little to me. They were merely there to be studied and mastered, but they did not command my loyalty. Only one thing demanded my allegiance, because it is what makes the world turn. My internal compass was set to achieving personal power.”

So it was. Peter C. Newman says he has found satisfaction as he nears his journey’s end. But one quietly suspects that the old sailor would have had a happier landfall had he set his tiller for a truer north.

Don’t Worry About Running Out Of Oil

David Frum January 13th, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Two young men join the communist party in the 1930s. Years pass. They grow up, lose their illusions, leave the party and rejoin normal American life. More years pass. They achieve some intellectual renown, are offered teaching posts at major universities and settle into comfortable middle age. Then the 1960s hit, and one of the two old communists suddenly veers leftward again. Over dinner one evening, the reinvigorated leftie harangues his former comrade about Marx, Engels, Lenin and all the rest of the dusty antique crew. The comrade replies: “Phil, your answers are so old that I’ve forgotten the questions.”

Sooner or later, I suppose, something like this happens to all of us. Me, for example. I grew up in the 1970s, the age of the so-called energy shortage. Politicians, newspapers, television broadcasts, policy experts all confirmed that the world was running out of oil. In a televised address on April 18, 1977, president Jimmy Carter delivered a chilling prediction: “Unless profound changes are made to lower oil consumption, we now believe that early in the 1980s the world will be demanding more oil that it can produce. … Within 10 years we would not be able to import enough oil from any country, at any acceptable price.”

Instead, within 10 years the price of oil collapsed. In mid-1986, the price of a barrel of oil tumbled to US$10 a barrel. Prices struggled upward in the later 1980s, but except for a brief spurt upward during the Gulf War, oil remained cheap until the end of the century. Now of course the price has risen high again — high enough and for long enough that the Phils of the energy world are offering up all their old answers once again, and people in the policy world are worrying about a new “Hubbert’s peak.”

M. King Hubbert was an American geophysicist who predicted in 1956 that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s and decline thereafter. Hubbert’s prediction proved accurate, and now many oil experts fear that world oil production may likewise soon hit its maximum. Perhaps they are right: world oil production has to hit a maximum someday, and who knows, the year 2015 may well be the year. But if it is the year, that will not mean that the world is “running out” of oil in the sense that Jimmy Carter used those words almost 30 years ago.

Many of us think of the world’s oil reserves as a finite resource: There’s only so much there, and when it’s used up, there won’t be any more. But as one of the world’s great oil economists, M.A. Adelman, has observed, this way of thinking is all wrong. Oil reserves, Adelman writes, “are no gift of nature. They [are] a growth of knowledge, paid for by heavy investment.”

The world’s oil supply of oil is not finite. It is more like a supermarket’s supply of canned tomatoes. At any given moment, there may be a dozen cases in the store, but that inventory is constantly being replenished with the money the customers pay for the cans they remove, and the more tomatoes that customers buy, the bigger an inventory the store will carry.

For example, at the time of Carter’s speech, the Persian Gulf region was authoritatively reported to hold some 74 billion barrels of oil. And today, after three decades of frantic pumping, the region is estimated to hold almost 700 billion barrels of oil, or almost 10 times as much. These reserves may continue to grow. Or they may not. Everything depends on the market’s expectations for the future price of oil. Those expectations in turn depend not just on the ability of producers to produce, but on the willingness of consumers to consume.

Back in the Carter era, experts believed that consumer demand for oil was bound to go up and up and up until it was restrained by government. That certainly seemed like a reasonable guess: In the 20 years from 1960 to the oil shock of 1979, U.S. oil consumption almost doubled, from 9.8 million barrels a day to 18.6 million barrels per day.

But consider what happened next: in the years after the price hikes of 1979, U.S. oil consumption actually dropped, to a low of 15.2 million barrels per day in 1982 and 1983. Oil use picked up slightly in the 1980s, but not until 1996 did American oil use catch up to its levels of the late 1970s. In 2003, Americans used just a fraction over 20 million barrels of oil per day, and this despite huge increases in the number of cars on the road and the number of miles driven.

Similar trends can be seen in other developed countries. Canada, for example, used 1.97 million barrels of oil per day in 1979; it used 2.09 million barrels per day in 2002.

Consumers respond to price signals. Even in the low-price years from 1985 to 2000, they remembered the high cost of oil in the 1970s and adjusted. Utilities stopped burning oil to generate electricity and opted for coal or nuclear power or taxpayer-subsidized wind and solar power instead. Cars became more efficient (at least until the SUV came along in the late 1990s). Homeowners installed superior insulation and switched from oil to natural gas heat.

In this new era of expensive oil, the process of substitution will accelerate. It may reach too into growing markets such as India and China. As it does, oil in the ground may become less valuable. And we will move closer to the day when M.A. Adelman’s ultimate prediction comes true: As consumers substitute other energy sources for oil, oil in the ground will gradually become less valuable and producers will gradually lose interest in searching for more.

The world will never run out of oil. It will just stop using it. When that happens, the world will never know and never care how much oil remains in the Earth.

This Disaster Exposes The Myth Of The Un’s Moral Authority

David Frum January 9th, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

The helicopters are taking off and landing now in the tsunami-shattered villages and towns. The sick are being taken for treatment. Clean water is being delivered. Food is arriving. Soon the work of reconstruction will begin.

The countries doing this good work have politely agreed to acknowledge the “coordinating” role of the United Nations. But it is hard to see how precisely the rescue work would be affected if the UN’s officials all stayed in New York – or indeed if the UN did not exist at all.

The UN describes its role in South Asia as one of “assessment” and “coordination.” Even this, however, seems to many to be a role unnecessary to the plot. The Daily Telegraph last week described the frustration of in-country UN officials who found they had nothing to do as the Americans, Australians, Indonesians, and Malaysians flew missions.

It will be the treasury departments of the G-7 missions that make decisions on debt relief, and the World Bank, aid donor nations, private corporations, and of course the local governments themselves that take the lead on long-term reconstruction. And yet we are constantly told that the UN’s involvement is indispensable to the success of the whole undertaking. How can that be?

In a notable interview on December 31, Clare Short, the former international development secretary, explained that the UN possessed a unique “moral authority”, and without this authority, the relief effort would be in trouble because … well, after that it gets hazy.

It is obviously not because of the UN that countries like Britain, the United States, Germany, Japan, Australia, and India are donating so generously to the countries in need. Nor, even more obviously, is it because of the UN that the afflicted countries are accepting aid. Nor again has the so-called authority of the UN induced Burma to accept any aid that Burma’s rulers find politically threatening.

Nor finally is the UN really quite so hugely popular as supporters such as Ms Short would wish it believed. The Pew Charitable Trusts – the same group that conducts those surveys on anti-Americanism worldwide – reports that the UN carries much more weight in Europe than it does in, say, the Muslim world. Only 35 per cent of Pakistanis express a positive attitude to the UN, as do just 25 per cent of Moroccans, and but 21 per cent of Jordanians.

The UN’s authority is instead one of those ineffable mystical mysteries. The authority’s existence cannot be perceived by the senses and exerts no influence on the events of this world. Even the authority’s most devout hierophants retain the right to disavow that authority at whim, as Ms Short herself disavowed its resolutions on Iraq. And yet at other times those same hierophants praise this same imperceptible, inconsequential, and intermittently binding authority as the best hope for a just and peaceful world. An early church father is supposed to have said of the story of the resurrection: “I believe it because it is absurd.” The same could much more justly be said of the doctrine of the UN’s moral authority.

Whence exactly does this moral authority emanate? How did the UN get it? Did it earn it by championing liberty, justice, and other high ideals? That seems a strange thing to say about a body that voted in 2003 to award the chair of its commission on human rights to Mummar Gaddafi’s Libya.

Did it earn it by the efficacy of its aid work? On the contrary, the UN’s efforts in Iraq have led to the largest financial scandal in the organisation’s history: as much as $20 billion unaccounted for in oil-for-food funds. UN aid efforts in the Congo have been besmirched by allegations of sexual abuse of children; in the Balkans, by charges of sex trafficking.

Is the UN a defender of the weak against aggression by the powerful? Not exactly. Two of this planet’s most intractable conflicts pit small democracies against vastly more populous neighbouring states. In both cases, the UN treats the democracies – Israel, Taiwan – like pariahs.

This record may explain why the UN is regarded by so many Americans as neither moral nor authoritative – and why American leaders of both political parties reject UN attempts to control American actions.

And indeed, when we talk about UN authority, it is UN authority over America that we always seem to have in mind. The UN is the stated topic, but it is American power that is the real subject of concern.

As Ms Short complained in The Independent on January 1: “At a time when the world faces terrible challenges, of poverty, disorder and environmental degradation, there is a real danger that the US government is consistently undermining the only legitimate system of international co-operation that we have.” In a world that contains – among others – the EU, Nato, the World Trade Organisation, and literally hundreds of regional and global governmental and non-governmental associations, it seems bizarre to describe the UN as the sole legitimate international actor.

But of course the UN is the only one of these actors consistently to come into conflict with the United States. It is this bias of the UN system – and not any of the UN’s meagre list of achievements – that causes so many on the global Left to regard it as legitimate in a way that they do not regard, say, international treaties for the protection of patents.

Europeans often interpret American skepticism about the UN as a sign of American indifference to world opinion. Yet Americans care passionately for the good opinion of the world. Nothing John Kerry said during the 2004 campaign inflicted as much damage to the President as his charges that George W Bush had ruptured alliances and lowered America’s standing in the world.

Unlike many on the European Left, however, Americans seem able to remember that the UN is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Americans see the UN not as an ineffable mystery, but as an institution invented six decades ago by human beings no wiser than their modern successors to respond to the problems of their time – which were not the same as the problems of ours.

If the UN keeps failing, the answer is not to ignore its faults, but to reform or replace it. There is growing interest in some American quarters in the idea of a new international association, open only to countries that elect their leaders democratically. At a minimum, Americans expect transparency, accountability, and some greater approach to even-handedness in the Middle East. But the real challenge to all of us, in all the democracies, is this: to be guided by realities, not fantasies – and especially not such uniquely unconvincing fantasies as the allegedly unique moral authority of the United Nations.

The Un’s Tsunami Power Play

David Frum January 4th, 2005 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Disasters bring out both the best and worst in human nature. The tsunami that struck South Asia last week has inspired generosity and compassion in millions of people around the world. It has also created opportunities for profiteering and advantage-seeking — and some of the very worst offenders happen to be found at the organization that generous donors trust to help the needy and bereaved: the United Nations.

The day after the tsunami struck, a UN official named Jan Egeland made headlines around the world by describing the rich countries’ foreign aid budgets as “stingy.” Egeland quickly retracted his remarks. But he had opened the way, and many others soon took up his message: nongovernmental organizations such as Oxfam and liberal newspapers such as The New York Times, which editorialized on Dec. 30 that “Mr. Egeland was right on target.”

The accusation was instantly seized upon and repeated around the world. The French newspaper Le Figaro sneered that the U.S.’s initial estimate of the sum needed — an estimate made before there was any firm casualty count — was less than one-tenth the daily cost of the Iraq war. (Le Figaro could have observed with equal accuracy that the estimate was also far less than the amount French political figures received in bribes from the Saddam Hussein regime. That, however, is a subject not to be discussed in France.)

From the start, though, there was something highly artificial about this debate, and it is this: Within minutes of zero hour on Dec. 26, rescue and aid workers have had every dollar they could possibly spend, and then some. Mr. Egeland himself belatedly acknowledged this in a press conference on Jan. 1. He announced that donor countries had pledged more than US$2-billion: the largest and fastest outpouring of funds in the history of disaster relief, more pledges in less than a week than the refugees of Sudan’s Darfur region have received in more than a year.

And that’s just the official money. Huge and as yet uncounted sums of money and supplies are pouring into charities from Sweden to Singapore. By the time all is done, aid officials in South Asia may well discover that — as the 9/11 charities discovered — they had collected more money than the job required.

With money so freely flowing, Mr. Egeland continued, “the biggest constraints” on the rescue operation are “logistical”: “We need to make small damaged airstrips some of the busiest airports in the world.” To support the overcrowded airports, the relief effort would need aircraft carriers and carrier-borne helicopters to ferry supplies to shore.

All of these urgently needed military assets have already moved to the area. An American aircraft carrier, the Abraham Lincoln, departed for Indonesia on Dec. 29. It will be joined by a fleet including six vessels carrying shipboard desalination units that can each purify 100,000 gallons of water per day and pump that water up to two miles. 1,500 U.S. Marines have landed in Sri Lanka to help keep order and speed relief efforts. Australia, India, the United Kingdom and other regional powers are making proportionate efforts.

So what were Mr. Egeland and Oxfam and The New York Times talking about? What impelled them to complain about “stinginess” as the evidence of generosity was piling up all around them?

In a Dec. 31 press release, Oxfam let the cat out of the bag: “As Colin Powell meets with [UN Secretary General] Kofi Annan to discuss how the ‘core group’ of the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India will work with the UN, Oxfam staff in Asia warned that further chaos and duplication would result unless the UN was allowed to lead and co-ordinate the global response. Oxfam’s East Asia Regional Director Ashvin Dayal said: ‘The US-led core group must come under the umbrella of the United Nations to be effective.’ “

To put it yet more bluntly: The dispute over allegations of “stinginess” is not a dispute over how much should be given. It is a dispute over who will control what is given.

This dispute has a special urgency for the UN bureaucracy and its supporters. Just before the tsunami, the UN was struggling to contain and deny the worst financial scandal in its history: oil for food. As much as US$20-billion that passed through UN hands in the 1990s, supposedly on its way to help the Iraqi people, cannot be accounted for. A committee headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker is sifting through the UN’s accounts, trying to trace the money. In the meantime, the people who presided over the scandal — and who may have pocketed funds — remain on the job at Turtle Bay.

Conscientious, taxpayer-minded governments understandably flinch from trusting such people to manage the money they give. For that reason, the Bush administration has chosen to work directly with the other major democracies in the Asia-Pacific area to distribute disaster relief and — when the time comes — reconstruction aid.

It is fear that the UN bureaucracy might be circumvented that has UN bureaucrats up in arms. In this time of horror and grief, their first thought was — as usual — for themselves.