Were Sanctions Worth the Price?

By Hayes, Christopher | In These Times, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Were Sanctions Worth the Price?


Hayes, Christopher, In These Times


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

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 NPRs 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?

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.

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