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Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy

3.91  ·  Rating Details ·  195 Ratings  ·  39 Reviews
The year is 1997, Michael Soussan, a fresh-faced young graduate takes up a new job at the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food Program, the largest humanitarian operation in the organization’s history. His mission is to help Iraqi civilians survive the devastating impact of economic sanctions that were imposed following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

As a gaffe-prone novice in a world of sens
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published November 4th 2008 by Nation Books (first published September 1st 2008)
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Michael Soussan
Oct 23, 2008 Michael Soussan rated it it was amazing  ·  (Review from the author)
Recommends it for: students, diplomats, journalists
“[An] absorbing memoir…. Soussan brings provocative wit, a keen eye for detail and a knack for revealing anecdotes to this important account of the rampant greed, hypocrisy and cynicism festering behind the United Nations’ humanitarian credo.”
– Publishers Weekly

“United Nations whistleblower Soussan jauntily recounts his tenure coordinating the Iraq Oil-For-Food program, revealing why bribery and kickbacks were tolerated…. In grimly humorous prose he describes the characters he encountered in his
Rima Al-Alamy
Jan 15, 2014 Rima Al-Alamy rated it it was amazing
If you are interested in international diplomacy; this is the book to start with.; A powerful story of diplomacy behind the scenes. If you think or want to join the UN, this is the book to understand how to survive in the male-dominating place of work. The book is an insightful exposé, spiked with outraged wit. It’s a very educational book that will have you staying up late to finish it. A good read that should be read with another book that was published amidst great controversy: Emergency Sex ...more
Sep 26, 2010 Jo rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fantastic. Disturbing. Important. A look into the UN I have never had before. Likely, a look many of us have never had before. The UN's biggest problem? It's run by people. And people are corrupt.

"Once you see the blue helmets, you're fucked." - Bosnian refugee.
May 06, 2009 Karol rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
This memoir had me laughing and crying, a coming-of-age story about blowing the whistle on corruption in the United Nations oil-for-food program. The author proves that it's possible to be both a realist and an idealist. A great read.
Dec 18, 2013 Duncan rated it it was amazing
Michael Soussan joined the UN as an idealistic young man at the age of 24 on the newly created Oil-for-Food program, which was intended to use Iraqi oil money to buy essential supplies for the country's population at the time of crippling sanctions against Saddam Hussein's dictatorial regime.

Throughout his time at the UN, he discovered gross incompetence, often emerging as a result of an organisational culture in which people were in such fierce competition against each other that they were comp
J. Joan
Sep 03, 2008 J. Joan rated it it was amazing
Michael Soussan's memoir of his time as UN Oil for Food Programme Coordinator is all at once informative, provocative, witty, intelligent, and poignant. Far from your ordinary historical review, Mr. Soussan paints a detailed and engaging insider’s picture of what was going on within the iconic international organization, complete with a description of the specific contents of Benan Sevan’s office and a cast of nicknamed characters (including “Spooky,” “Smiley Face,” and his own – “The Kid”). In ...more
Jul 10, 2010 Robert rated it really liked it
I recall seeing the review of this book in the WSJ and remember thinking, I need to read this book. The effortless electronic link to Amazon had the book to my doorstep within three days. It was definitely worth reading although I could not give it my highest rating. I would have liked the author to have been a bit more principled. However, I realize that such an individual would never have lasted long within the UN and I could not have written this book. Still, one comes away with a sense that ...more
Vemund H.
Feb 06, 2015 Vemund H. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I was visiting a friend of a friend who works at the UN, and we were in a cafe at the New York headquarters, with a view of the river and a huge painting on the wall. I had asked her a lot of questions trying to figure out if the UN is a good thing or not, and in the end she recommended reading this book.

The author does not try to hide that this is his personal experience, and at the same time makes sure to include other points of view. It shows several aspects of international operations, from
Aug 19, 2009 M rated it liked it
The writing is standard journalese, not bad, but annoyingly repetitive. The book could have been a lot shorter and faster-moving if somebody had edited out his numerous re-summarizations of the same points. Yes, the UN was hampered by conflicting goals and incentives in general and in the administration of the Oil-for-Food program in particular; yes, the UN is a hotbed of jostling for position and backstabbing; yes, there's no accountability within or without the organization; got it; move on to ...more
Dec 06, 2013 Susan rated it it was amazing
What a good read! If you have ever thought about working for the UN, read this book first. If you are working for the UN, read this book now. If you have retired from the UN, read this book and laugh. While the author presents his experiences in a particularly high profile UN Secretariat organization, the truths of the book and the survival rules presented are spot on. The book moves fast and is fascinating. The characters drawn appear to be caricatures, but have a fundamental element of truth b ...more
Michael Connolly
Feb 17, 2012 Michael Connolly rated it really liked it
No one at the United Nations wanted to stick his neck out and blow the whistle on the corruption. Most of the employees simply wanted to keep their jobs and not make waves. Unlike in the United States, there are no protections at the UN for whistleblowers. The members of the Security Council, including not only France, and Russia, but also the UK and US, made little effort to supervise the United Nation's Oil-for-Food program. And the UN needed supervision, because it had never administered such ...more
Nov 16, 2010 Juha rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone interested in the inner workings of diplomacy and the UN.
An insider's blow-by-blow account of the Iraq-UN Oil-for-Food debacle told with passion and panache. Michael Soussan maintains a fair dose of idealism while learning about the dirty world of international diplomacy. He lays the blame equally at most players: the UN secretariat and the Security Council, member states and greedy contractors and, of course, Saddam's Iraq. If nobody comes off completely clean, Soussan also has understanding for the humans who fail in their duties and their moral jud ...more
Jun 12, 2012 Kathleen rated it really liked it
I wish that I did not like this book so much. It is a whistleblower's account of the UN Oil for Food scandal. It shows a unique perspective of the inner workings of the UN and highlights how a mistake of this magnitude could have happened. The author, at times, seems possibly to embellish his role in the grand scheme of the organisation; however this is a well written, provocative piece.
Malinda Damayanti
Feb 01, 2015 Malinda Damayanti rated it it was amazing
A journal from the insider of UN. Because diplomacy isn't only about the polished shoes and suits, or state manners, the back door is much more exciting to learn about. This book balanced my view of what happened in the int'l organization negotiation
Jan 13, 2013 Homira rated it did not like it
As an international technocrat, I was really looking forward to this but it's more about him than the culture of sanitizing mistakes and nepotism that the title suggests. Didn't finish it.
Mar 16, 2017 Angela rated it really liked it
Very interesting read.
Alex Marshall
Jan 04, 2015 Alex Marshall rated it liked it
A pretty funny if self-serving description of the shenanigans that went on at the UN around the Iraq oil-for-food programme in the 1990s. It's a great case study of how the UN is sometimes asked to take on an insoluble problem for which it was never designed and then, after everything collapses in shit and derision, is asked to bend over while the people responsible for giving it the task line up to kick its bottom.

That isn't to say that the UN isn't a dysfunctional bureaucracy, and Soussan des
Dawn Lee
May 17, 2015 Dawn Lee rated it it was amazing
In equal parts funny, absurd, painful and hopeful, Backstabbing for Beginners is more than a juicy inside look at the UN, big bureaucracy and an international scandal. Soussan is an excellent and detailed storyteller with an eye for the absurd, timing and concise explication, in the face of a very complex international SNAFU/FUBAR that built and unravelled over an extended period of time. The narrative is self-aware and reflective, and is likely to evoke empathy and understanding in those with e ...more
Mar 13, 2012 Crysta rated it liked it
Shelves: history-politics
Long ago, I considered a career in international policy, something along the lines of what Soussan had at the UN. I found his account of the inner-workings interesting, with bureaucracy and politics running much deeper than I've heard articulated. Soussan shares his front-row perspective on the Oil for Food Program through his trips to Iraq and the day-to-day red tape. He looks at the vast chasm between the admirable goals of the program (food and medicine for average Iraqi citizens hurt by sanc ...more
May 09, 2010 Homira rated it did not like it
Very disappointing, picked it up from Infoshop, good premise, insider's look at multilateral organization, specifically the Iraq oil scandal at UN, but too much detail, couldn't get past first 50 pages, not compellingly written at all. Maybe it annoyed me because it was so redolent of the 3rd world elitists and their superiority complexes that I find in these organizations.
Jan 05, 2011 Glendora rated it really liked it
If you've ever worked at the UN, this book is for you. And if you haven't, here it all is. And it ain't pretty. But it is pretty funny, in a devastating, disheartening kind of way.

(Tip: if you take the author's class at NYU -- "Writing for International Affairs" -- you will get even more out of it.)

Moral of the story: a complete and utter failure of common sense. That about sums it up.
Audacia Ray
Aug 13, 2009 Audacia Ray rated it liked it
Shelves: memoir, read-in-2009
A good read for wannabe policy wonks and those interested in the inner workings of the UN. There were definitely parts that shone (the UN-written rules of the UN in particular) and were masterfully written, but a lot of it gets bogged down in overly detailed rants about office politics and the like.
Especially interesting when you are working in that organization! Wrote in narrative style, he really helps me getting more familiar with "backstabbing". Many reader may not know the other face of UN and he provides that part. One must not lose faith though. The most nobel intention can go awfuly wrong
Apr 18, 2009 Kimberly rated it it was amazing
Soussan's explanations of the dichotomy between excruciating bureaucracy & devoted idealism run through my head every. single. day. Reconciling turf wars and belief in a mission is an overwhelming challenge. I might send this book to everyone I know instead of trying to explain my life.
Jul 20, 2012 Tim rated it liked it
An enjoyable, addictive read. Good for anyone who is interested in working for a bureaucratic, governmental organization. Insightful on the corruption which underlies international conduits of power.
Jan 14, 2009 Jocelyn rated it really liked it
Michael Soussan recounts his adventures in the UN Oil-for-Food program. The amount of corruption within this major humanitarian fiasco is surprising, but even more so is the UN's knowledge of it and the indifference by almost all parties involved.
Patrick Hiltz
Dec 29, 2010 Patrick Hiltz rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is based on the true experiences of a functionary working for the UN and is not only tragic because of how events unfolded but also hilarious. The drama and turf battles along with bureaucratic unaccountability are just staggering.
Mar 30, 2011 Caro rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Very interesting and very well written. With the UN as the centre stage of this book, it could have been dry, factual and possibly boring but it definitely is not. Great read, pleasant, informative and a bit of an eye opener too.
Mihir & Sucharita
Sep 28, 2012 Mihir & Sucharita rated it it was amazing
Interesting book - -written by a UN official . the various lies and conspiracies - especially on the Iraq Oil sanctions
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