Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions by Joy Gordon (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 359 pages.
Between the Gulf War and the Iraq War, the United States enforced a comprehensive sanctions policy against the Iraqi people, under the auspices of the United Nations. Whereas the hot conflict of 1990 and the one that has run from March 2003 to this day have occupied American attention, the sanctions, beginning even before Operation Desert Storm and persisting until Shock and Awe, implemented by three presidential administrations, were largely ignored. Trade restrictions simply do not elicit the primetime excitement that bombs and aircraft do. Yet the devastation from depriving a nation of international trade is easily comparable to that of war.
On the eve of the Iraq War, moderate voices for “peace” even insisted that the sanctions were “working” in undermining Saddam’s regime and preventing it from rearming — as though such were worthy U.S. goals in the first place. But putting that question aside, the prospect of all-out war struck many Americans as imprudent, displeasing, perhaps even immoral — even as many of those same Americans defended the sanctions regime and advocated their continuation in lieu of war.
But more principled voices for nonintervention, and those aware of the enormity unleashed by the sanctions, had been protesting them for years. Indeed, as a practical matter, the sanctions ran counter to defending American lives on U.S. soil. Osama bin Laden cited the sanctions on Iraq, among other U.S. policies, as a main motive behind the attacks of September 11. Perhaps no single example of such policies is more horrific than the sustained and systematic destruction of Iraqi economic life — which is to say, Iraqi life — that took place in the “peacetime” era between the two wars. To this day, thanks to the sanctions as well as the wars, the Iraqis have “never [come] close to restoring the standard of living that most Iraqis had up to 1990,” according to Joy Gordon, whose new book, Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions, is a powerful and rather comprehensive treatment of the topic.
War by other means
The sanctions began in August 1990, in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. During the actual Gulf War, 160,000 bombs were dropped on Iraqi forces and infrastructure. A UN envoy soon found 75 percent of the water access and 85-90 percent of the electricity infrastructure destroyed. The bombing and sanctions demolished Iraq’s relatively modern economy, turning the nation into a third-world country, and preventing it from recovering. “Between August 1990 and December 1995, food prices increased by 4,000 to 5,000 times.”
The result of these policies was mass devastation:
The destruction from the 1991 bombing campaign of electric generating plants, water purification, and sewage treatment facilities resulted in cholera and typhoid epidemics. In 1990 the incidence of typhoid was 11.3 per 100,000 people; by 1994 it was more than 142 per 100,000. In 1989 there were zero cases of cholera per 100,000 people; by 1994 there were 1,344 per 100,000.
Meanwhile, major surgeries fell to “30 percent of the pre-sanctions level.” Most terribly, child mortality rates skyrocketed. Although there is disagreement over the data, “the majority of the studies over the course of the sanctions regime strongly suggest that, for the period from 1990 to 2003 …at least 500,000” children died of malnutrition and disease who would most likely have otherwise lived.
All in all, “according to 1990 testimony before Congress, the sanctions eliminated 90 percent of Iraq’s imports and 97 percent of its exports. As a result, per capita income went from $3,510 in 1989 to $450 in 1996.” Iraq’s GDP, which had been $54 billion in 1979, sank to $10 billion in 1993.
At first, the goal was to pressure Iraqi forces to retreat from Kuwait. But sometime after the war began, the goal shifted to one of general containment and disarmament — at least as far as the UN Security Council was concerned — while the U.S. government and Britain upheld the more ambitious goal of regime change. That was a bipartisan policy in America. Bill Clinton said in 1993, “There is no difference between my policy and the policy of the [George H.W. Bush] Administration…. I have no intention of normalizing relations with [Saddam Hussein].” And as his secretary of State Madeleine Albright made clear in 1997, “We do not agree … that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted.”
But if the goal was regime change, the policy was virtually destined to fail. Gordon writes, If Saddam Hussein was supposed to be motivated by self-interest, and wanted sanctions to end, then there was no reason for him to comply with the demands of the Security Council, since sanctions could not be removed without U.S. agreement and the United States repeatedly made clear that it would never remove them while Hussein was in power.
In a chapter called “The Magnitude of Catastrophe,” Gordon documents the extent of that destruction and finds that only the combination of war, restrictions on imports, central planning of exports, and a systematic undermining of Iraqi infrastructure could produce the calamity that occurred. The destructive policies, such as the bombing of Iraq’s water treatment facilities and the UN ban on the importation of chlorine, worked together. “Or take, for example, the ceiling on oil exports: once the ceiling on oil sales was lifted, Iraq was blocked from obtaining the equipment necessary to increase oil production. Or consider the blocked contracts for electrical equipment: even if Iraq had been allowed to buy the equipment and chemicals for water and sewage treatment, there was not sufficient electricity to power the plants.”
The perversity and irony of the sanctions regime, imposed under the auspices of international law, is that it may have done more human damage than Saddam Hussein’s persecution of ethnic groups and human rights combined.
Imperialistic central planning
How did the program work? Initially, the UN forbade all member nations to import any Iraqi goods, and required them to prohibit their nationals from shipping any goods or sending funds to either Iraq or Kuwait. From August 1990 to March 1991, that included food. The program soon came to involve “a labyrinth of UN agencies as well as the establishment of an entirely new agency within the UN.” Beginning in August 1991, Iraq was allowed to export up to $1.6 billion every six months to trade for food and medicine. All humanitarian goods, food, and medical equipment would be purchased through the “661 Committee,” which came to possess “extremely broad responsibilities for the overall implementation of the sanctions regime.” The 661 Committee, made up of 15 delegates, “few of whom had expertise in economic development, emergency relief, oil, or any other of the committee’s substantive areas of work,” made about 6,000 decisions a year about what would be allowed into Iraq. From 1990 to 1995, that was “the sole legal means for Iraq to import any goods.” By 1995, food was so scarce that an Iraqi government rationing program provided “1,100 calories per person per day.”
And before Iraq could buy any goods, it would have to present a “distribution plan,” giving a
detailed description of the areas of need in each sector…. The plan then listed every single item to be purchased, how it would be used, and where it would be used: every piece of equipment for electrical production, and the specific power plant where it would go; every chemical or instrument for water treatment, and the specific laboratory or plant where they would be used; every dose of vaccine for poultry and cattle, and every syringe, needle and scissors for veterinarians; and so forth.
Even as Iraqi imports were controlled in this totalitarian manner, so too was its principal export, oil. By determining how much oil could be sold, the United States and UN exercised total domination over the Iraqi economy. Altogether, war and sanctions “meant an 85 percent decline in oil production.” In 1995, the UN set up the Oil-for-Food Program, in response to problems with and criticisms of the initial sanctions regime, but the control was still cruel and becoming of a total state. “The Oil-for-Food Programme originally allowed imports totaling $130 per person per year. Together with existing imports, which averaged $20 per person per year, total imports came to $150, well below the level of the poorest Arab countries.”
Moreover, Iraq never handled any of the funds. The “proceeds of all oil sales were deposited in [a UN] account and all payments to vendors were made from this account.” The U.S. meddling with oil prices through a socialist scheme of “retroactive pricing” also interfered greatly with trade with Iraq. “The chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute asked, ‘How can you do business if you don’t know what the price is?’”
The United States calling the shots
Although done through the UN, the sanctions were essentially a U.S. policy. “The United States exercised singular influence over every aspect of the structure and extent of the sanctions.” The Multinational Interception Force, which enforced the policy, “for its entire history was under the command of U.S. naval officers.” The United States first created the policy by intimidating and bribing member nations to vote for it — offering aid to Colombia, Ethiopia, and Zaire to vote for the sanctions; making deals with China and the Soviet Union; and canceling aid to Yemen for refusing to go along. Then, by exercising its veto power over the implementation of the sanctions, the United States would put a “hold” on various importation contracts — blocking agricultural goods, children’s milk, food-packaging materials, raw cotton, and glue. The United States even “blocked the purchase of salt on the grounds that it could be used for the salinization of leather, which contributed to Iraqi industry.” These holds were at times both absurd and devastating: “Vehicles in general were targeted by the United States on the grounds, for example, that a vehicle that could carry a bulldozer could conceivably be used by the military to carry a tank…. Sixty percent of transportation contracts on hold were for accessories such as tires, car batteries, or spare parts, making it impossible to maintain or repair whatever vehicles there were.”
This “dual use” rationale for blocking items that could supposedly be used for both civilian and military purposes was taken to obscene levels. The United States “blocked a contract for 1,000 water tankers on the grounds that they were lined with stainless steel and therefore were ‘WMD dual use.’” A “catering truck was blocked because it was refrigerated.” Propellant used to make inhalers was disallowed. Vaccines were blocked, because it was supposed to be possible to turn the weak viruses into biological weapons. Pesticides were blocked because “Iraq might extract chemical components … to make chemical weapons.” Although the UN monitored how imports were used, the United States insisted on blocking such important goods outright. And although the holds were supposedly for security reasons, the United States was willing to reverse itself to benefit nations that went along with its sanctions policy.
All the while, Congress was content to allow the executive branch to handle the sanctions, blindly accepting State Department propaganda and only occasionally speaking up insofar as it concerned the disarmament of Iraq and regime change. Only a few legislators spoke in behalf of the devastated Iraqi people. Gordon provides a very good chapter on congressional dynamics. Of course, even with the Democrats running “both houses of Congress until 1995, for the most part they had little interest in the humanitarian situation.”
The UN itself is to blame as well, but, notably, most other member nations, the elected members of the Security Council, and the humanitarian organizations within the UN tended to protest the policy as framed by the United States and to an extent Britain. UN agencies produced damning reports of the humanitarian disaster. UN secretaries general complained. Starting in 1991, nations such as India, Zimbabwe, Ecuador, Cape Verde, and Morocco proposed reforms to allow for more humanitarian aid. In 1999, UN panels issued reports finding that the Oil-for-Food Program could not be sufficiently reformed to deal with the horror. In 2000, delegates from more than 20 nations, at this point even including the United States and Britain, gave presentations urging reform. But at every turn, “the United States either prevented the reforms from being adopted or undermined their implementation after they had been adopted.”
As for the well-publicized Oil-for-Food scandal, Gordon has a whole chapter detailing the facts, showing that the corruption involved was overblown compared with the destruction and corruption of the sanctions policy itself. Even without the Oil-for-Food corruption, the Iraqi people would have been virtually no better off. And even here, the United States is hardly blameless: “By far the greater part of Iraq’s illicit funds came from ongoing trade with Jordan, Turkey, and Syria…. The United States blocked any punitive action by the Council against either Jordan or Turkey.” The amount of misallocated money involved in the scandal was dwarfed, for example, by the waste and mismanagement of Iraqi funds by the Coalition Provisional Authority established by the United States in 2003:
From 1990 to 2003 Iraq averaged about half a billion dollars in illicit trade annually. By contrast, in fourteen months of occupation, the U.S.-led occupation authority depleted $18 billion in funds, a good deal of it on questionable contracts with little justification, but much of it just an outright giveaway of cash.
None of this is to defend the Iraqi government, which Gordon writes about extensively in one chapter. Some people mistakenly place all the blame on Saddam’s regime for its corruption and cruelty; the Iraqi state did exacerbate the problem but not as much as is often believed. “The more serious failings concerned the basic structure and policies of the Iraqi government itself: the centralization, the reliance on oil income, reliance on imports and on foreign professionals, and the reliance on advanced technology.” Indeed, the centralized nature of the Iraqi state and the widespread public dependency upon it meant that its bankruptcy under the sanctions regime impoverished the whole country. Gordon credits the government for some of its rationing and subsidy efforts, but it is telling that one of the effective and positive things the Iraqi government did was to allow “the expansion of the private sector in health care, to compensate for the state’s inability to meet health care needs.”
Philosophical, legal, and political lessons
Gordon finishes with a couple of chapters exploring the implications for international law and political and ethical philosophy. Libertarians will not be overimpressed by the sanctions’ incompatibility with UN guarantees such as the “right to health care,” but they will find very compelling the discussion of the Geneva Convention, war crimes, and the like. Gordon finds little legal recourse for the Iraqi people in the form of prosecution or judicial oversight of the Security Council. The sanctions, she concludes, probably do not rise to the level of “genocide” or “a crime against humanity” — “but it seems to me this does not constitute a vindication of the sanctions, but rather a failure of international law.” She comes to a rather encouraging libertarian conclusion: “It may be that, in the end, there is a particular risk posed to humanity by international governance,” whose institutions “entail the risk of a new form of global violence.”
But there is so much to learn from this tragic and disgusting episode. Conservatives need to recognize that totalitarianism and socialistic central planning are indeed not just an abstract threat under the banner of the Democratic Party, but are a reality of U.S. policy, especially as it concerns foreign affairs. They must come to grips with the evil and systematic destruction and terror that are unleashed in the name of U.S. national security upon innocent people in other countries. Liberals should learn that central economic control and restrictions of free trade contain the seeds for near-genocidal levels of cruelty and oppression; that allowing international bodies to govern trade is far from a panacea but is rather a tool of imperialism; that no political party and no state — American, international, or Iraqi — can be trusted not to put political interests above the human right to engage in economic exchange. The Iraqis have been brutalized by the U.S. government for 20 years now, and neither their own government, for all its monopolization of public services, nor the United Nations, for all its high rhetoric, has done much other than worsen their misery. The rest of us can learn about the extent of death and destruction meted out by our own government, in our own name, and come to see why so many in the world would hate us and be willing to kill us — not for our freedom, but for Washington, D.C.’s, war on the freedom of others. Invisible War is a very important book about a very important topic, a topic at risk of being neglected and forgotten, as have so many other atrocities commited by the U.S. empire.
This article originally appeared in the September 2010 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.