Chris Hayes on the Cost of Sanctions on Iraq

Sixteen years ago, Chris Hayes weighed the impact sanctions had on the lives of Iraqis. What lessons can we glean from this today?

Christopher Hayes

A mother and her child captured at Saddam Children's Hospital. Many children faced malnutrition and diseases due to lack of milk and medicine following Gulf War sanctions. (PHOTO BY ROBERT NICKELSBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES)

More than 30 countries (including the United States) have economically sanctioned Russia and Belarus since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. The Biden administration has described the sanctions as going after [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s cronies,” but Russian citizens are beginning to feel the hurt with the rising cost of food and medicine.

In 2006, three years after sanctions were lifted on Iraq, In These Times Senior Editor (and current MSNBC anchor) Chris Hayes described how they resulted in high rates of malnutrition, disease and death for the Iraqi people. Hayes lays the effectiveness of sanctions on its face and poses the question, Were sanctions worth the price?”

IN 2006 CHRISTOPHER HAYES WROTE: 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 nonviolently” as many now say, or did they create a humanitarian abomination of epic proportions?

Or: did they do both?

Did sanctions successfully disarm Saddam Hussein “nonviolently” as many now say, or did they create a humanitarian abomination of epic proportions?

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.

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.”

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

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.”

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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.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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