The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Remembering the sanctions on Iraq

I've made my opposition to sanctions — on Iran or anywhere else, and yes that includes Israel (divestment and boycotts is not the same thing) — clear in previous posts. By all means impose travel bans on senior officials, exclude countries from international sports (had much effect for rugby fans in South), boycott academics and public figures who are supportive of repressive regimes, and other inventive solutions. But don't carry out policies that cut off entire populations from the global economy, leave them isolated from the world, deny them educational opportunities and even possibly slowly starves them and denies them the tools of modern life.

This is a lesson I learned in the 1990s, when still at university and researching Iraq under the sanctions. The sanctions were one of the great war crimes of the 1990s, killing at least half a million Iraqi children and creating the situation that would contribute, a decade later, to the mess that was/is Iraq. It was the deliberate de-modernization of a country, and one of the great shames of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton's policies.

Andrew Cockburn has a great piece in the LRB reviewing a new book on the sanctions and their impact:

The first intimation that the blockade would continue even though Iraq had been evicted from Kuwait came in an offhand remark by Bush at a press briefing on 16 April 1991. There would be no normal relations with Iraq, he said, until ‘Saddam Hussein is out of there’: ‘We will continue the economic sanctions.’ Officially, the US was on record as pledging that sanctions would be lifted once Kuwait had been compensated for the damage wrought during six months of occupation and once it was confirmed that Iraq no longer possessed ‘weapons of mass destruction’ or the capacity to make them. A special UN inspection organisation, Unscom, was created, headed by the Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus, a veteran of arms control negotiations. But in case anyone had missed the point of Bush’s statement, his deputy national security adviser, Robert Gates (now Obama’s secretary of defence), spelled it out a few weeks later: ‘Saddam is discredited and cannot be redeemed. His leadership will never be accepted by the world community. Therefore,’ Gates continued, ‘Iraqis will pay the price while he remains in power. All possible sanctions will be maintained until he is gone.’

Despite this explicit confirmation that the official justification for sanctions was irrelevant, Saddam’s supposed refusal to turn over his deadly arsenal would be brandished by the sanctioneers whenever the price being paid by Iraqis attracted attention from the outside world. And although Bush and Gates claimed that Saddam, not his weapons, was the real object of the sanctions, I was assured at the time by officials at CIA headquarters in Langley that an overthrow of the dictator by a population rendered desperate by sanctions was ‘the least likely alternative’. The impoverishment of Iraq – not to mention the exclusion of its oil from the global market to the benefit of oil prices – was not a means to an end: it was the end.

Visiting Iraq in that first summer of postwar sanctions I found a population stunned by the disaster that was reducing them to a Third World standard of living. Baghdad auction houses were filled with the heirlooms and furniture of the middle classes, hawked in a desperate effort to stay ahead of inflation. In the upper-middle-class enclave of Mansour, I watched as a frantic crowd of housewives rushed to collect food supplies distributed by the American charity Catholic Relief Services. Doctors, most of them trained in Britain, displayed their empty dispensaries. Everywhere, people asked when sanctions would be lifted, assuming that it could only be a matter of months at the most (a belief initially shared by Saddam). The notion that they would still be in force a decade later was unimaginable.

Do read the whole thing.