Iraq and the Domestic Political Effects of Economic Sanctions

By Mazaheri, Nimah | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Iraq and the Domestic Political Effects of Economic Sanctions


Mazaheri, Nimah, The Middle East Journal


The recent veneration of the Iraq sanctions program as having prevented Saddam Husayn from obtaining Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) obscures important lessons regarding the program's political failures. Through an examination of factors such as Iraq's rationing system and flaws in the sanctions' design, this article shows how the imposition of sanctions strengthened rather than weakened Husayn's government. An analysis of the case of Iraq also may provide insights on how other governments have been able to survive lengthy international sanctions or trade embargos.

The debate over the efficacy of the economic sanctions program in Iraq (1990-2003) turned a sharp corner in 2004, as newly found admiration emerged for the program's ability to penetrate the Iraqi state. First came the February 9, 2004 interview with Mohammed El Baradei in Newsweek, during which the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) cheered the United Nations Sanctions Committee (UNSC) for its ability to prevent Saddam Husayn from obtaining weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).1 Then, late that summer, an article appeared in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs by George Lopez and David Cortright entitled "Containing Iraq: Sanctions Worked." By October, the Iraq Survey Group released the "Duelfer Report," which further boosted the arguments of those who had long supported the sanctions program. As a New York Times editorial - titled "The Verdict is In" - followed the report's release, many began to make the argument that Iraq did not possess WMDs prior to the 2003 invasion because the sanctions program was a success.

In the years since then, both the international media and the American public have concerned themselves far less with the debate over the presence or absence of WMDs in Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion. However, the connection that was widely drawn in 2004 between the absence of WMDs and the overall success of the sanctions program has gone unchallenged - in spite of decades of contentious discussion among scholars regarding the efficacy of economic sanctions in general.2 Interestingly, the excitement which emanated from sanctions supporters upon discovering that Iraq did not have WMDs was neither met with recapitulations of earlier arguments against sanctions or more balanced re-evaluations of the program's successes and failures.3 Instead, the absence of WMDs was viewed as new evidence that sanctions in Iraq had been successful.

This article argues that celebrating the Iraq sanctions program due to its alleged WMD-preventing effects should not overshadow the overall failure of the program with respect to its primary goal: to destabilize Husayn's government. Given that this primary goal was emphasized by every American presidential administration since 1990, it is important to begin asking why the sanctions program failed in this crucial regard. Indeed, although preventing Husayn from obtaining WMDs was certainly an important - albeit lesser - goal of sanctions architects, the success of sanctions in one area does not cloud its failure in another. As this article strives to make clear, the case of Iraq can offer many lessons regarding the domestic political effects of economic sanctions. It would benefit both scholars and policymakers to begin crafting assessments of precisely what the Iraq sanctions program achieved and what it did not - and offer explanations why.

Although the domestic political effects of the sanctions program can be analyzed from different perspectives, this study specifically centers on how the sanctions program expanded the role of the Iraqi state and increased regime stability. After an overview of the sanctions program and the political goals expressed by American administrations, four elements that served to strengthen Husayn's government are examined: (1) Iraq's rationing system; (2) increased domestic ideological support and regional empathy during the sanctions; (3) the ability of sanctions to enhance state power and eliminate political alternatives; and (4) flaws in the design and scope of the sanctions program. …

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