Iraq Experience Gave Sanctions Use a Boost Though Not Fully Tested in Gulf Case, Success of Economic Squeeze on Saddam's Regime Could Influence Future Policy

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ALTHOUGH President Bush finally opted for war as the sole means of evicting Iraq from Kuwait, the success of sanctions in squeezing Iraq may have helped rehabilitate economic coercion as an effective tool of diplomacy.

Because of its strategic location and extensive trade ties with the West, Iraq was especially vulnerable to international sanctions.

But experts say the lessons of Iraq could be applied in response to future aggression, especially in the third world, that is likely to be a chief source of instability in the postwar era.

"The Gulf crisis may make inroads on the sanctions-never-work mentality that prevailed before the war," says one Washington-based economist.

Meanwhile, the messy outcome of a war that has left Saddam in power, with enough military might to crush Shiite and Kurdish insurgencies, has prompted some diplomatic observers to question whether the United States-led coalition could have achieved better results at lower cost by relying on sanctions alone.

"Over time we're going to have to evaluate, are we better off with the outcome of the war than we might have been if we had (dealt with Saddam) in a slower, less dramatic way," says the Brookings Institution's Judith Kipper.

"If we had been able to show in Iraq that sanctions can work, we would have had a tool we could use in any kind of international situation where one country is an aggressor against another," says US Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois. "As it is, it's not as proven a tool as we would have had if we'd stuck to sanctions." Questions of loyalty raised The issue of sanctions has also been thrown into sharp relief because of questions raised by Republican Party and congressional leaders about the loyalty of senators who voted in January to extend the sanctions period before going to war. The debate over whether, given time, sanctions would have worked, is likely to spill over into the 1992 elections.

Economic sanctions were imposed on Iraq by the United Nations Aug. 6, just four days after Iraq invaded Kuwait. The embargo eventually led to food shortages and higher prices. By mid-September, food riots were reported in parts of rural Iraq.

Dependent on oil exports for virtually all of its foreign earnings and on imports for most of its food, Iraq was highly vulnerable to economic coercion. By the outbreak of the air campaign, Iraq's gross national product (GNP) had been cut in half, an economic impact 20 times higher than the average toll exacted by international sanctions applied since 1914, according to a recent study.

Despite the crippling effects of the embargo, President Bush opted for war on Jan. 16, fearful that the anti-Iraq coalition might unravel during the nine- to 15-month period experts predicted would be needed for sanctions to have maximum effect.

The decision to move militarily was reinforced by other considerations.

One was the reported "leakage" of food and supplies, especially across the Iranian border, that many experts predicted would sustain Iraq's ability to endure economic hardship.

Another concern was that, even if sanctions forced Saddam out of Kuwait, Iraq would emerge from the crisis with its weapons stockpiles intact, retaining the capacity to threaten regional security.

"One element that was driving the discrediting of sanctions and the need to go to military options was the (weapons) production sites," says Janne Nolan, author of a recently published book on the proliferation of ballistic missiles in the third world. "It became the conventional wisdom that, even if there were a peaceful settlement, these production sites would remain."

The Bush administration was also persuaded that as sanctions continued to bite, Saddam would turn the suffering of the Iraqi people into a public-relations spectacle, placing strains on the coalition and escalating demands to relax the embargo. …