In 1996 then-UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright was asked by 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, in reference to years of U.S.-led economic sanctions against Iraq, “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”
To which Ambassador Albright responded, “I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it.”
That remark caused no public outcry. In fact, in January the following year Albright was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as President Clinton’s secretary of state. In her opening statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was considering her appointment, she said, “We will insist on maintaining tough UN sanctions against Iraq unless and until that regime complies with relevant Security Council resolutions.”
Apparently no member of the committee asked her about her statement on 60 Minutes. Albright was confirmed.
Why bring this up now? Albright has just published her memoirs, Madam Secretary, in which she clarifies her statement. Here’s what she writes:
I must have been crazy; I should have answered the question by reframing it and pointing out the inherent flaws in the premise behind it. Saddam Hussein could have prevented any child from suffering simply by meeting his obligations…. As soon as I had spoken, I wished for the power to freeze time and take back those words. My reply had been a terrible mistake, hasty, clumsy and wrong. Nothing matters more than the lives of innocent people. I had fallen into the trap and said something I simply did not mean. That was no one’s fault but my own. (p. 275)
In the paragraph before this one she complains about the 60 Minutes report because “little effort was made to explain Saddam’s culpability, his misuse of Iraqi resources, or the fact that we were not embargoing medicine or food.”
When one reviews the facts, it is clear that Albright’s explanation is woefully inadequate. First, it contains an apparent contradiction. She says food and medicine were not embargoed, but then she says Saddam Hussein could have avoided the suffering “simply by meeting his obligations.” Does that mean more food would have been available had Hussein done what the U.S. government wanted? If so, weren’t American officials at least partly responsible for the harm done to the Iraqi people? Hussein certainly did not let his people starve. The New York Times and Washington Post have reported that in answer to the sanctions, Saddam Hussein maintained an elaborate food-rationing program for rich and poor, presumably to hold the loyalty of the Iraqi people, which the sanctions were supposedly intended to dissolve. Iraqis are reported to be reluctant to give up the program even though Hussein is gone and the sanctions are over.
Albright is being disingenuous. Although food wasn’t formally embargoed when the sanctions began in 1990, Iraq was hampered in importing it because initially Iraqi oil couldn’t be exported. No exports, no imports. The UN’s “oil for food” program, started six years later, after Hussein dropped his opposition, was supposed to remedy that. But it didn’t entirely. Counterpunch.org reported in 1999, “Proceeds from such oil sales are banked in New York…. Thirty-four percent is skimmed off for disbursement to outside parties with claims on Iraq, such as the Kuwaitis, as well as to meet the costs of the UN effort in Iraq. A further thirteen percent goes to meet the needs of the Kurdish autonomous area in the north.” With the remaining limited amount of money, the Iraqi government could order “food, medicine, medical equipment, infrastructure equipment to repair water and sanitation” and other things. But — and here’s the rub — the U.S. government could veto or delay any items ordered. And it did.
As Joy Gordon reported in the November 2001 Harper’s,
The United States has fought aggressively throughout the last decade to purposefully minimize the humanitarian goods that enter the country…. Since August 1991 the United States has blocked most purchases of materials necessary for Iraq to generate electricity, as well as equipment for radio, telephone, and other communications. Often restrictions have hinged on the withholding of a single essential element, rendering many approved items useless. For example, Iraq was allowed to purchase a sewage-treatment plant but was blocked from buying the generator necessary to run it; this in a country that has been pouring 300,000 tons of raw sewage daily into its rivers.
For Albright to say that food and medicine were not embargoed is to evade the fact that critical public-health needs could not be addressed because of the sanctions. Preventing a society from purifying its water and treating its sewage is a particularly brutal way to inflict harm, especially on its children. Disease was rampant, and infant mortality rose because of the sanctions. Let’s not forget that destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure was a deliberate aim of the U.S. bombing during the 1991 Gulf War.
No wonder two UN humanitarian coordinators quit over the sanctions. As one of them, Denis Halliday, said when he left in 1998, “I’ve been using the word ‘genocide’ because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I’m afraid I have no other view.”
Albright now writes that her answer to Stahl was “crazy” and that she regretted it “as soon as [she] had spoken.” Yet she did not take back her words between 1996 and Sept. 11, 2001. According to journalist Matt Welch, after being plagued by student protesters she “quietly” expressed regret for her statement in a speech at the University Southern California shortly after 9/11. But neither her office nor the Clinton administration issued a prominent clarification to the American people or the world. Could that be because her initial answer was sincere and that her belated apology was issued with her legacy in mind? We can be sure of one thing: word of her response spread throughout the Arab world. Maybe even among some of the 9/11 terrorists.