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While Pentagon officials bluntly admitted in 1991 that sanctions aimed to punish the Iraqi people, candor evaporated as the death toll rose. The State Department’s website announced in June 1999,
Sanctions are not intended to harm the people of Iraq. That is why the sanctions regime has always specifically exempted food and medicine.
This was false. Banning exports of oil effectively also banned imports of food, medicine, and other humanitarian goods. Some of the worst impacts of the sanctions dissipated after the oil-for-food program was launched, but by that time, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis may have already perished.
Denis Halliday, the UN administrator of the oil-for-food program, resigned in 1998 to protest the ravages the sanctions were continuing to inflict on Iraqis. Halliday complained, “We are in the process of destroying an entire country” and denounced the sanctions as “nothing less than genocide.” Hans von Sponeck, his replacement, served two years before resigning in protest in early 2000, denouncing the sanctions as a “criminal policy.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross warned in a report in December 1999 that the oil-for-food program “has not halted the collapse of the health system and the deterioration of water supplies, which together pose one of the gravest threats to the health and well-being of the civilian population.” Seventy members of Congress sent a letter to President Clinton in early 2000 denouncing the sanctions as “infanticide masquerading as policy.”
While sanctions were maintained after the Gulf War allegedly to compel Iraq to disarm, the U.S. government long pursued a different goal. Secretary of State James Baker declared in May 1991, “We are not interested in seeking a relaxation of sanctions as long as Saddam Hussein is in power.” President Clinton decreed in November 1997 that “sanctions will be there until the end of time, or as long as he [Saddam Hussein] lasts.” At the end of the Clinton era, Defense Secretary William Cohen bragged,
We have been successful, through the sanctions regime, to really shut off most of the revenue that will be going to rebuild [Saddam Hussein’s] military.
Joy Gordon, professor of philosophy at Fairfield University, spent three years researching the effects of the UN sanctions programs on Iraq. Gordon obtained many confidential UN documents that showed that
the United States has fought aggressively throughout the last decade to purposefully minimize the humanitarian goods that enter the country,
as she reported in a November 2002 Harper’s article.
After the first Gulf War, the UN Security Council set up a committee to administer sanctions on Iraq. The U.S. government vigorously exploited its veto power on the committee by placing holds on contracts. The Economist declared in early 2000 that Americans and British on the sanctions committee were “abusing their power to block suspicious imports.” The United States blocked the importing of ambulances, tires, and soap. Imports of children’s pencils were restricted “because lead could have a military use.” The United States vetoed allowing car batteries and forklifts to be included on a list of humanitarian goods that could automatically be sent into Iraq. The Associated Press summarized controversies around U.S. vetoes of imports:
Most of the disputed contracts are for equipment to improve Iraq’s dilapidated oil industry, power grid and water sanitation infrastructure.
The U.S. government routinely and perennially vetoed delivery of goods that UN weapons inspectors had certified as posing no military benefit to Saddam. As of September 2001, the United States was blocking “nearly one-third of water and sanitation and one quarter of electricity and educational — supply contracts were on hold.” Gordon noted, “As of September 2001, nearly a billion dollars’ worth of medical-equipment contracts — for which all the information sought had been provided — was still on hold.”
In early 2002, the United States blocked contracts for the delivery of “dialysis, dental, and fire-fighting equipment, water tankers, milk and yogurt production equipment, printing equipment for schools.” Gordon reported,
Since August 1991 the United States has blocked most purchases of materials necessary for Iraq to generate electricity…. 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.
Sanctions and political games
Gordon observed that the U.S. government “has sometimes given a reason for its refusal to approve humanitarian goods, sometimes given no reason at all, and sometimes changed its reason three or four times, in each instance causing a delay of months.” She noted,
The United States found many ways to slow approval of contracts. Although it insisted on reviewing every contract carefully, for years it didn’t assign enough staff to do this without causing enormous delays.”
Large shipments of humanitarian aid were delayed “simply because of U.S. disinterest in spending the money necessary to review them.”
The U.S. government played politics with its holds, turning Iraq into a pork barrel for wheeling and dealing on the UN Security Council. In 2001, the United States proposed a reform called “smart sanctions” that would have automatically slowed down many more imports into Iraq — while removing the United States from culpability for blocking the relief. Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the U.S. government was confident that the revised sanctions system would be
able to keep the box as tightly closed as we have the last 10 years, without receiving on our shoulders all the baggage that goes with it.
When Russia refused to support “smart sanctions,” the United States responded by slapping holds on almost all the contracts that Russian companies had to deliver goods to Iraq. After Russia agreed to support a revised sanctions reform in April 2002, U.S. government holds on three-quarters of a billion dollars in Russian contracts for Iraq suddenly vanished in what one diplomat told the Financial Times was “the boldest move yet by the U.S. to use the holds to buy political agreement.”
Gordon concluded that “U.S. policy consistently opposed any form of economic development within Iraq.” As of mid 2002, the importation of almost $5 billion in humanitarian goods was blocked — almost entirely because of holds imposed by the U.S. and British governments.
President Bush sought to blame all the suffering of the Iraqi people on Saddam’s lust for weapons. In an October 7, 2002, speech Bush declared,
The world has also tried economic sanctions and watched Iraq use billions of dollars in illegal oil revenues to fund more weapons purchases, rather than providing for the needs of the Iraqi people.
While Saddam did use some of the revenue from “illegal” (i.e., not authorized by the UN) oil sales to Syria and elsewhere to purchase weapons, the United States never presented any evidence that such purchases amounted to “billions of dollars.” The U.S. position appeared to be that as long as Saddam spent a single cent on weapons, the United States was blameless for the devastation from its “siege warfare” tactics.
After human-rights advocates had harshly condemned sanctions on Iraq for almost a decade, the sanctions suddenly morphed into a causus belli. At a March 27, 2003, joint press conference for Bush and Britian’s prime minister, Tony Blair, Blair declared,
Over the past five years, 400,000 Iraqi children under the age of five died of malnutrition and disease, preventively, but died because of the nature of the regime under which they are living. Now, that is why we’re acting.
Progressive editor Matthew Rothschild observed that Bush and Blair “refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for those deaths and instead seize upon them simply to justify their war of aggression.”
After the war started, the suffering caused by sanctions became further proof of Saddam’s depravity. In a March 25, 2003, press conference announcing plans for humanitarian aid after the Iraq War, Andrew Natsios, administrator for the Agency for International Development, declared,
There has been a water issue, and I am not sure everybody entirely understands this. It predates the war. Water and sanitation are the principal reasons children have died at higher rates than they should have for a middle-income country…. It is a function of a deliberate decision by the regime not to repair the water system or replace old equipment with new equipment, so in many cases people are basically drinking untreated sewer water in their homes and have been for some years.
In reality, the United States government perennially blocked the importation of the necessary equipment and supplies to repair the water system — as if it were a “dual use” because of the possibility that Iraqi soldiers would get glasses of water from the repaired systems.
From 1991 through the end of 2002, 8,924 people were killed in attacks by international terrorists, according to the U.S. State Department. The sanctions on Iraq may have killed more than 50 times as many civilians as did terrorists during a time when terrorism was supposedly one of the gravest threats to humanity.
During the 2000 election campaign, Bush criticized the Clinton administration for failing to keep sanctions as tight as possible. In the lead-up to the war, he frequently relished recounting the details of Saddam’s brutality, especially the alleged gas attacks against Kurdish villages that, according to Bush, “killed or injured at least 20,000 people, more than six times the number of people who died in the attacks of September the 11th.” (It is unclear whether it was the Iraqis or the Iranians who actually carried out the gas attacks.)
But far more Iraqi children were killed by sanctions after Bush’s inauguration on Janu ary 20, 2001, than Saddam killed in his alleged gas attacks on the Kurds. If the estimate of 500,000 dead as a result of sanctions is correct, that would be the equivalent of snuffing out the lives of all the babies and young children in Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and North Dakota.
The fact that bin Laden greatly exaggerated the sanctions death toll does not absolve the U.S. government. Within a year or two after the end of the Gulf War, it should have been obvious that sanctions would neither turn Saddam into a Boy Scout nor bring him to his knees. The U.S. government knew the sanctions were scourging the Iraqi people. Three U.S. presidents escaped any liability for the Iraqi deaths caused by U.S. policy. The people who worked in the World Trade Center may not have been so lucky.
Rather than continue to pirouette on the world stage as a great benefactor, the Bush administration should open the files and let everyone learn what the U.S. government knew — and when it knew it — about the devastation sanctions wreaked upon Iraq. This information could provide a healthy antidote against future salvation manias by American presidents.
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