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Better Late than Never on Sanctions


The Bush administration wants the United Nations to lift the economic sanctions against the now-Hussein-less Iraq because they impose cruel hardship on the Iraqi people.

Better late than never.

Some of us have been saying for years that the sanctions were a cruel and futile attempt to undermine Saddam Hussein’s regime by inflicting harm on innocent people. President Clinton’s UN ambassador, Madeleine Albright (later secretary of state), said, incredibly, that the resulting half-million child deaths were “worth it.” But most other government officials, including the Bush people, downplayed the harm the punitive measures were doing. They did so even while actively thwarting efforts to get desperately needed products and equipment into the country. (By the way, what good do they think the sanctions accomplished?)

Now they say things such as what Treasury Secretary John W. Snow said the other day: “The easing of U.S. sanctions will bring much-needed aid and humanitarian relief to the Iraqi people as they begin the process of rebuilding their lives after more than two decades of brutal dictatorship.”

It follows, then, that the Bush administration (as well as the Clinton and first Bush administrations before it) had labored hard to deny that much-needed relief. Why is the president only now admitting it?

Defenders of sanctions always argued that any hardship was not the fault of those imposing them, but rather of Saddam Hussein. If only he’d cooperate (or abdicate), the sanctions could be lifted and the people would get the needed goods.

But this argument is morally off-target. Given the brutality and self-centeredness of Hussein, wasn’t it predictable that sanctions would hurt not him, but innocent Iraqis? Under those circumstances, why are the sponsors of the sanctions not partly responsible for the entirely predictable dire results?

Imagine that a known thug is holed up in a house with hostages. The police decide that the best way to free them is to starve the thug out by preventing food and water from getting inside. If the hostages die, the thug surely bears the major portion of the blame, but those who kept food out are not without fault. The situation in Iraq was less ambiguous, because food and medicine were getting to the people before the sanctions. According to UNICEF, child mortality increased under the sanctions, accounting for at least half a million deaths.

It will do no good to argue that Hussein had imposed hardships on the Iraqis long before the sanctions. He surely did, but then why were the sanctions needed? We’re not talking about sanctions on weapons, but on food, medicine, and equipment for sanitation and clean water. You have to wonder about a policy that says, in effect, since Saddam Hussein is harming the Iraqis, we are going to step in and harm them ourselves so they’ll get really mad and overthrow Hussein. The logic escapes me.

Of course, the sanctions should be ended forthwith. Iraqis should be free to import and export without permission from the United States, the UN, or anyone else. The French government and others dragging their feet clearly have dirty hands in this matter; they have made lots of money from the corrupt UN administration of the sanctions and oil-for-food program. The foot-draggers are making pawns of the Iraqi people, just as the U.S. government did before the war.

For decades American presidents have found sanctions the low-cost way to make war on other people. That’s no overstatement. Sanctions are an act of war, and they have often been imposed on people whose governments had done nothing to threaten us. And this, even though the same pattern always emerges: the rulers of the targeted country do just fine, while the innocent people suffer. It’s a subtle, but nevertheless deadly equivalent to carpet-bombing. And like carpet-bombing, it does not drive a wedge between the people and the government, much less spark open rebellion. Just observe Cuba, where American presidents have maintained an embargo, mostly for domestic political reasons, for more than 40 years.

U.S. foreign policy, including its approach to sanctions, needs a thorough moral reevaluation. Its Johnny-come-lately opposition to the Iraqi sanctions doesn’t obviate that obligation.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.