Iraq sanctions and their aftermath.

Were Sanctions Worth the Price?

As conflict with Iran looms, questions remain about the moral implications of sanctions

BY Christopher Hayes

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As he makes the rounds promoting his memoir and attempting to distance himself from the failures of the Iraq occupation, Paul Bremer consistently offers the same excuse. “I have to say I was surprised by … how run down the economy was,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross in January. “I found a situation that was quite a bit more difficult than I had anticipated.”

If honest, this is a shocking admission. The reason Iraq’s economy was “run down” and its infrastructure decimated has more than a little to do with a massive American bombing campaign during the first Gulf War, followed by 13 years of the most comprehensive sanctions in the history of the United Nations. Bremer’s “surprise” at Iraq’s devastation is like a Union general arriving in Atlanta after Sherman and expressing shock that the place had been torched.

Bremer’s not alone in his amnesia: With the war and occupation front-and-center, the sanctions era has been relegated to a historical footnote. But we haven’t heard the last of sanctions. Recently, a growing chorus of pundits and politicians has called for sanctions against Iran. With the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty unraveling before our eyes and preemptive war discredited, sanctions seem the only viable means of deterring regimes that seek nuclear weapons or engage in gross human rights violations.

And yet it’s easy to forget that in the waning days of the Clinton era and early Bush years, the sanctions in Iraq had increasingly few supporters. As sanctions experts David Cortright and George Lopez noted in a 2004 article in Foreign Affairs, the sanctions regime was “dismissed by hawks as weak and ineffective and reviled by the left for its humanitarian costs.”

The Iraq war changed all that. From the New York Times editorial board to Senator John Kerry, many now argue that by forcing inspections that successfully dismantled Iraq’s weapons programs, sanctions achieved U.S. policy goals without the need for an expensive and bloody war. In other words, to quote the title of Lopez and Cortright’s article, “Sanctions Worked.”

But the sanctions also caused widespread misery and death. Before possibly repeating the same mistakes, it makes sense to get a better handle on the legacy of the Iraq sanctions. Did sanctions successfully disarm Saddam Hussein “non-violently” as many now say, or did they create a humanitarian abomination of epic proportions?

Or: did they do both?


The idea of using economic blockades as a tool of coercion is as old as warfare itself, but the modern concept of sanctions as an alternative to war didn’t come about until after World War I and the League of Nations. The idea was later enshrined in Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes the Security Council to respond to “breaches of the peace” with “complete or partial interruption of economic relations.”

For the next 40 years, Cold War paralysis in the Security Council meant that multilateral U.N. sanctions were rarely used, with two exceptions: Rhodesia in 1966 and South Africa in 1977. Though more limited in scope than those later imposed on Iraq, these sanctions undoubtedly helped to bring down the apartheid regime and were widely viewed as a triumph for the international community.

“South Africa was the paradigm,” says Joy Gordon, a professor of philosophy at Fairfield University who has written extensively on sanctions. “They were seen as both peaceful and effective.”

Then came Iraq.

By the time Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, the deadlock on the Security Council had crumbled along with the Berlin Wall. In response to Iraq’s aggression, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 661 requiring member states to cease all imports from or exports to Iraq. When the sanctions failed to induce Hussein’s withdrawal, the United States launched Operation Desert Storm and forced his retreat. After the Gulf War, the United Nations maintained the sanctions (now modified under Resolution 687), in order to force Iraq’s compliance with weapons inspectors and the other conditions of the ceasefire. They were not meant to be indefinite.

After five years of sanctions, a rising tide of U.N. officials, along with U.S. and European activists, began calling attention to the policy’s catastrophic effects on the people of Iraq. In 1996, general sanctions morphed into the Oil-For-Food Program. The program allowed the Iraqi government to sell limited amounts of oil and use the proceeds to pay contractors to bring in food and humanitarian goods. The council, however, still blocked anything that qualified as “dual use” goods–items that could conceivably be used in a banned weapons program. These could include everything from water tankers to vaccines.

To articulate the full scope of the resulting humanitarian disaster is a tall order; there have been hundreds of conflicting reports, and numbers are disputed. But one thing is clear: hundreds of thousands of Iraqis suffered and died due to sanctions.

Consider the economic toll alone. Prior to the sanctions, 60 percent of Iraq’s GDP came from oil exports, which meant that an export ban immediately reduced the country’s economy by more than half. To put this in perspective, in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, U.S. GDP had fallen only 27 percent from its pre-depression levels. A study published in 2005 estimated that by 1993, three years into the sanctions, real per capita GDP in Iraq–adjusted by real value of the Iraqi dinar–had fallen by 98 percent, from $718 in 1990 to just $13

The economic effects were amplified by the widespread bombing during the first Gulf War, when over 90,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Iraq and Kuwait. Many of these bombs hit electricity facilities and water treatment plants. A declassified 1991 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency document titled “Iraq Water Treatment Vulnerabilities” accurately predicted the combined effects of bombing and sanctions: “With no domestic sources of both water treatment replacement parts and some essential chemicals, Iraq will continue attempts to circumvent United Nations sanctions,” it read. “Failing to secure supplies will result in a shortage of pure drinking water for much of the population. This could lead to increased incidences, if not epidemics, of disease.”

Indeed, between 1990 and 1994, the incidence of typhoid went from 11.3 to 142 per 100,000 and cholera grew from zero cases to 7.8 per 100,000.


Though the sanctions stirred up much public debate in Europe and outrage across the Arab world, they received relatively little attention in the United States–until a small number of religious activists, most notably the Chicago-based Voices in the Wilderness (now Voices for Creative Non Violence), started publicly protesting the havoc wreaked by America’s policies.

Voices was not met with a warm reception. The U.S. government prosecuted the group for violating the sanctions (by bringing banned items like aspirin into Iraq), ultimately levying a $20,000 fine. In the press, Voices was generally portrayed as either foolish do-gooders or outright apologists for the Baathist regime. “I know people said we were dupes and useful idiots,” Voices founder Kathy Kelly says wearily, “It’s a sad thing to me. If you wait till you’re perfect, you’ll never get anything done. I know that our project was inherently flawed from the beginning because we couldn’t go and do a demonstration in front of Saddam’s palace,” she says in reference to Hussein’s horrific crackdowns on dissidents. “We quickly would have endangered other people.”

Kelly is attractive and intense, with a bounty of grey-brown curls and clear, penetrating eyes. A longtime member of the Catholic Worker movement, she and others were galvanized into action in 1995, when the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) published a study in the British medical journal Lancet estimating that as many as 576,000 children had died as a result of the sanctions. “We realized that if we are not doing anything about this, it’s unlikely that anybody else is,” she says.

The FAO casualty estimate became a kind of rallying cry for sanctions opponents, and was forever immortalized in 1996, when “60 Minutes” asked then-U.N. ambassador Madeline Albright about the death toll of 500,000 children. She responded: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.”

Later studies would critique the methodology of the FAO report, but even a conservative analysis of the child morbidity and mortality rate in Iraq, published by public health and sanctions expert Richard Garfield, came up with a likely estimate of 350,000 dead children.

The bulk of these casualties came before the switch to “oil-for-food,” which led to a dramatic decrease in malnutrition and a doubling of food intake. But even after the most abject humanitarian crisis was relieved, sanctions still enforced widespread social misery. “I would say sanctions made Saddam Hussein stronger, not weaker,” says Denis Halliday, a former U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq. “They demolished any political opposition. Middle class professionals were so busy trying to make a living or keeping their kids alive, they had no interest in changing the system.”

After 13 months overseeing the Oil-for-Food program, Halliday quit in protest, eventually calling the United Nations policy “genocide.” He was succeeded by Hans Von Sponeck, who lasted two years before he, too, quit in disgust.

When sanctions supporters could no longer deny its disastrous impact, they blamed Iraqis’ suffering on Saddam Hussein. “If any child is without food, or medicine or a roof over his or her head in Iraq,” Bill Clinton told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! in 2000, it was because Saddam was “sticking it to his own children.”

There’s no question that Hussein exploited and exacerbated the suffering of Iraqis during the sanctions regime. But if the sanctions gave Hussein a pretext for cruelty and abuse, it’s hard to see how that counts as a point in the sanctions’ favor: “It’s as if the United States said ‘We don’t like Saddam, let’s starve the poor Iraqis,’ ” says Richard Garfield. “And Saddam said: ‘That’s my job. You want to starve, I’ll show you starving.’ “ 

Even with Hussein bilking the United Nations and underfunding crucial health and welfare services, it’s impossible to ascribe the totality of Iraq’s misery under the sanctions to Hussein’s treachery. For example, a much-publicized recent report on Oil-for-Food abuses estimated that the regime had skimmed as much $10 billion dollars in kick-backs. But in 2003 the World Bank estimated that just rebuilding Iraq’s basic infrastructure would cost $55 billion dollars.

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Christopher Hayes is the host of MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes. He is an editor at large at the Nation and a former senior editor of In These Times.

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