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Were Sanctions Worth the Price? (cont’d)

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The problem, Joy Gordon says, was that U.S. policymakers refused to see the destitution caused by the sanctions as “a form of violence because it doesn’t look like violence to us. There’s a famous line by Woodrow Wilson,” she says, “as he’s describing the League of Nations’ use of boycotts as a response to aggression. He calls it a ‘peaceful, silent … deadly remedy.’ That’s what this was.”


But if the Iraq sanctions were a humanitarian and moral failure, viewed through a narrow enough lens, they were also a disarmament success. For the first time in history, multilateral sanctions helped open up a regime to international weapons inspectors, who succeeded in destroying a fairly extensive program to develop biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

For George Lopez and David Cortright, this is the legacy of the Iraq sanctions that is important to preserve. With their tag-team style and easy rapport, Cortright and Lopez come across as the Laurel and Hardy of sanctions wonkery. Lopez is short, olive-complected and voluble, Cortright, taller, pale and reserved. Together they have written some 20 articles and five books about sanctions, given hours of testimony and presentations to diplomats and U.N. policymakers and authored guidelines for assessing the impact of sanctions that were subsequently adopted by the United Nations.

Both men work out of Notre Dame’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, which is dedicated to studying the “causes of violence and the conditions for sustainable peace.” For the pair, preserving sanctions as a viable option is part of a larger struggle to move the world toward an international governance system in which war is no longer an option, or at least, a very rare occurrence.

“What we’re seeing is the militarization of American foreign policy,” says Cortright with a hint of despair. He fears that if sanctions are discredited, we will “increasingly look to the military as a way to solve these problems.”

Lopez and Cortright argue that sanctions in Iraq were most effective in the first few years after the Gulf War, when Hussein reluctantly started complying with the terms of the cease-fire. “The Iraqis were saying: ‘If you get access to this, this and this, is there a chance the sanctions will come off?,’” says Lopez. “So the drive for Iraqi cooperation was partly fueled by wanting to get the sanctions untightened or lifted.”

But even with Iraq’s continued grudging acceptance of inspectors, and significant progress in exposing and destroying banned weapons, the United States blocked any movement at the United Nations to alter or loosen the sanctions. “[Iraq] had complied with four, five, six of the eight provisions” in the original U.N. resolution, Lopez says, “and they were getting no response on the other side.”

It was when Iraq realized that its compliance would bring no rewards that things began to deteriorate. In 1997, Clinton said sanctions would be maintained “until the end of time or as long as [Hussein] lasts,” and on October 31, 1998, he signed the Iraqi Liberation Act, which made “regime change” the official policy of the U.S. government. The same day, Iraq announced it would no longer cooperate with inspectors; the United States pulled them from the country and retaliated with bombing raids. Sanctions stayed on after 1998 as a putative inducement to let the inspectors back in, but with the United States openly endorsing regime change, it’s hard to see what Hussein had to gain from complying.

That said, Lopez and Cortright say the arrangement was still salvageable. The internationally coordinated effort to stop weapons from entering Iraq–a dragnet that was, we now know, essentially 100 percent effective–could have been de-linked from sanctions. “You could trade like crazy and simply focus on military means,” says Lopez. “That’s the system we advocated; the system we fought like crazy for.” They had some success. In 2001, the Bush administration pushed the United Nations to modify Oil-for-Food to allow more trade.

Even if all that is true, what about the humanitarian cost? I ask Cortright and Lopez a modified version of the infamous question to Albright: “Was it worth it?”

There’s silence. Cortight and Lopez both visibly squirm. They look at the table.

“We were less committed to the sanctions and more committed to the inspections,” says Lopez haltingly. “But we were convinced that the only thing that kept the inspections viable was to have the sanctions.” If the left had succeeded in ending sanctions, he says, you would have likely had a re-armed Iraq. “Then you’re in real trouble.” Ultimately, Lopez says, they could have gotten up on a “soap box” and condemned the sanctions, but it would have meant forfeiting their ability to influence high-level decision makers.

It strikes me, as I listen to this, that Lopez and Cortright faced the same kind of moral dilemma sanctions opponents like Kathy Kelly faced in Iraq. In hopes of mitigating suffering, they were forced to tacitly comply with a system that unquestionably produced it.


What, then, are the lessons? First, sanctions cannot be an indefinite means of “containment,” Lopez and Cortright say. They should only be imposed when there are clearly defined incentives and a willingness on the part of the parties to give and take. Second, and most importantly, comprehensive economic sanctions create such hardship for the innocent that they violate fundamental principles of justice. This is now a firm consensus within policy circles. “They were sui generis,” Lopez says of the Iraq sanctions. “It’s unlikely you’ll ever see something like that again.”

Not everyone got the memo: A week before I interviewed Lopez and Cortright, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) introduced a resolution calling for Bush to impose comprehensive economic sanctions on Iran.

The future of sanctions, Lopez and Cortright contend, is “smart sanctions,” which promise the benefits without the humanitarian costs by aiming the restrictions at those at the top of the regime in question. “You lock down weapons imports,” says Lopez, freeze assets and restrict travel: “The general’s daughter now can’t go to Princeton.” Since Iraq, nearly all of the sanctions imposed by the United Nations have been of this ilk.

The results are mixed: In Yugoslavia they managed to get Milosevic to the bargaining table, and in Libya they were very effective in convincing Khadaffi to stop his pursuit of nuclear weapons. In Somalia, Liberia and Rwanda, they’ve been near-total failures.

Cortright and Lopez are confident that smart sanctions will grow more effective as they are more routinely applied, but Halliday is skeptical. “In theory you can focus on the wrongdoer,” he says, “curb their travel and their goodies and their imported Jaguars, or whatever they’re into, but in the case of a dictatorship, it doesn’t make a difference. It’s not going to really upset the apple-cart.”

But if sanctions of any kind shouldn’t ever be tried again, as Halliday and Kelly both argue, the only two responses to gross violations of international norms would seem to be war or inaction. Sanctions opponents are bracing in the moral clarity of their critique of sanctions, but their proposals for alternatives–more “dialogue” and development incentives–seem a touch anemic.

It’s clear, however, that the voices of Halliday and Kelly weigh heavily on Lopez and Cortright. In an op-ed they’re circulating about the impending Iran “crisis,” Lopez and Cortright caution U.S. policymakers that “overly forceful sanctions toward Iran might be counterproductive,” and stress that sanctions work best when they are combined with incentives. The spectre of Iraq looms large.

But their op-ed seems to miss the biggest lesson. No matter how high-minded or nuanced the policy may be, it will only produce good outcomes if the countries involved act in good faith. For more than a decade, both Iraq and the United States were fundamentally acting in bad faith. Hussein was so intent on deceiving the weapons inspectors that he refused to acknowledge he had been disarmed, even after he had been, while the United States had no intention of lifting the sanctions, even after Hussein was disarmed.

When discussing early opposition to sanctions, Lopez mentioned the American Friends Service Committee, one of the earliest groups to protest the policy. According to Lopez, they feared that sanctions would be a “trap-door for war. We economically strangle him and then he won’t cry uncle so we cut off his head.”

“Isn’t that exactly what happened?” I ask.

“That is what happened,” says Lopez. “But it didn’t have to.”

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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