Were Sanctions Worth the Price?

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

Christopher Hayes

Iraq sanctions and their aftermath.

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 régime 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? 

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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 régime 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.

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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 régime. 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 régime. 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 régime 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.”

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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 régime 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 régime 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 régime 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 régime 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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