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Undiplomatic dispatch: Iraq sanctions are nasty, and they don't work

July 26, 2000
Web posted at: 7:27 PM EDT (2327 GMT)

( -- We may wince or cluck when civilians die in the course of a war we support, but most of us keep our eyes on the prize and accept the "collateral damage." There's no way to make the proverbial omelet, after all, without breaking a few eggs.

That seemed to be the logic of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright when she told "60 Minutes" in 1998 that even if sanctions against Iraq cause the death of half a million Iraqi children, "the price is worth it."


But what is "it," exactly? In the face of such a human toll, it behooves us to ask just what kind of omelet Secretary Albright and her boss are creating with this recipe.

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, there's growing concern both in the U.S. and abroad that continued sanctions are not only causing terrible suffering among Saddam's luckless subjects, but have also failed miserably as a strategy to bring down his unlovely regime.

Despite nine years of sanctions, Saddam is doing pretty nicely, thank you. His grip on power is stronger than ever; he and his cohorts grow rich smuggling goods from Jordan to beat the economic embargo; and the sanctions policy of his worst enemies -- the U.S. and Britain -- are today the subject of greater Arab hostility than his own odious regime. Sanctions haven't exactly crippled Saddam, but they've put the Iraqi people through hell.

Albright insists that Iraqis are suffering not because of sanctions, but because of the policies of their leader. Saddam is certainly cynically exploiting the propaganda value of sanctions, funneling precious resources into the armed forces that keep him in power, and playing for sympathy in the hope of ending sanctions while conceding as little as possible on his weapons programs. But there's no denying that those sanctions have occasioned a precipitous decline in Iraqi living standards and an alarming rise in the death rate. The country that, 10 years ago, had one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world now has one of the highest. Sanctions not only cripple Iraq's economy, they also block access to many critical lifesaving medicines on the grounds that these could supposedly be used in a biological warfare program.

In 1998, the coordinator of the U.N.'s oil-for-food program in Iraq resigned in protest against continuing sanctions. "We are in the process of destroying an entire society," warned Irishman Denis Halliday. "It's as simple and terrifying as that.... Five thousand children are dying every month."

It's worth asking what exactly these sanctions are designed to achieve. It's no secret, of course, that Washington's objective in keeping them in place is to overthrow Saddam, but Washington's not allowed to say so because these are U.N. sanctions, and the international body isn't in the business of overthrowing governments.

Instead, the legal basis for the sanctions -- which Washington can keep in place via its veto power at the U.N. -- is that Iraq has not been certified as compliant with its undertakings on weapons of mass destruction. Of course, there have been no U.N. inspectors in Iraq since they were withdrawn before the air strikes in late 1998. But without inspectors, Iraq's compliance can't be certified, even though former Marine captain Scott Ritter, who as a U.N. arms inspector was at the center of the 1997 showdown in Baghdad, insists that Iraq currently has no capacity to threaten anyone with weapons of mass destruction. In other words, sanctions have long since served their original purpose of blunting Saddam's ability to bully his neighbors.

President Clinton surely hoped that sanctions and cruise missiles would have long ago dispatched Saddam to the garbage pail of history, but now he has to digest the irksome reality that the Iraqi dictator is likely to survive his own administration. The culprit here may be Clinton himself, because his administration has conspicuously failed to formulate a viable Iraq policy. Back in 1991, President Bush held back from destroying Saddam's regime out of concern for regional stability. The collapse of the ethnic-minority regime in Baghdad would almost certainly cause the Shiite majority in the south to ally with Iran, and it would also prompt the Kurds in the north to create their own state, which Turkey would be unlikely to tolerate.

But sanctions do not a policy make; they're a holding pattern. And by simply keeping them in place, the Clinton administration ducked out of formulating a viable Iraq policy, as Saddam shored up his power while relegating most of his countrymen to a grueling struggle for survival that banishes all thoughts of rebellion. From a strategic point of view, the "Iraqi opposition" for which Congress has earmarked $100 million is a fantasy, and there's a growing fear that the damage wrought by sanctions to Iraq's social fabric may have condemned the country to decades more of despotism. Even if Saddam were miraculously overthrown, it's extremely unlikely to be by a Jeffersonian democrat. And a decade of sanctions hasn't exactly fostered enthusiasm for the West among ordinary Iraqis.

So while the sanctions program continues to do a booming trade in "collateral damage," it doesn't appear to be doing Iraq -- or the U.S., or anyone else, for that matter -- any good. And nor is it likely to any time soon.

Copyright 2000 Time Inc.


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