Lessons from Iraq: The “Price” of Sanctions

by Larry Everest | September 16, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


In light of the agreement for the "international community" to supervise the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, it's important to learn from the experience of U.S. and UN "diplomacy" and "arms inspections" in Iraq from 1990 to 2003. This is a case study in what imperialist diplomacy, agreements, and "arms control" are really all about—and what they mean for the people!

In 1990, draconian economic sanctions were imposed on Iraq, supposedly simply to force it to withdraw from Kuwait, which Iraq had invaded in August.

In April 1991, following 43 days of massive bombardment, the U.S.-led coalition forced Iraq, then under Saddam Hussein, to agree to UN Resolution 687, forcing it to reveal and destroy its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs, and to submit to extremely intrusive international inspections to verify compliance.

Iraq's alleged failure to fully comply with UN Resolution 687 and fully cooperate with UN weapons inspectors were the primary rationalizations for 12 murderous years of U.S.-imposed economic sanctions and near-war with Iraq. In 2002-2003, these charges morphed into the Bush regime's primary justification for preemptive war.

In fact, within six months of the end of the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi weapons programs were being discovered and destroyed. Iraq may have destroyed all its weapons of mass destruction by the early 1990s, according to a high-level defector, and certainly by the late 1990s. In October 1998, the International Atomic Energy Agency certified that Iraq had provided it with a "full, final, and complete" account of its nuclear weapons programs, and that the agency had found no evidence of any prohibited nuclear activities since October 1997. A year later, the UN Security Council's disarmament panel concluded, "Although important elements still have to be resolved, the bulk of Iraq's proscribed weapons programmes has been eliminated." In 2001, President Clinton's Defense Secretary William Cohen told the incoming Bush administration that "Saddam Hussein's forces are in a state where he cannot pose a threat to his neighbors at this point. We have been successful, through the sanctions regime, to really shut off most of the revenue that will be going to build his—rebuild his military."

This is why the U.S. found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—repeat zero, nada—when they conquered Iraq in 2003 even though U.S. inspectors scoured the country for months. In other words, Iraq had been telling the truth about weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. had been lying. The U.S. wasn't just lying before the 2003 war—it had been lying for the whole decade of the 1990s about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. This was no "intelligence failure"—these were deliberate, conscious, carefully crafted LIES!

This should have meant that sanctions were lifted. UN Resolution 687 stated that upon "completion" of its disarmament obligations, sanctions "shall have no further force or effect." But sanctions were never lifted, even when inspections showed that Iraq had disarmed.

Instead, during those years, members of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) charged with carrying out weapons inspections (37 percent of whom were U.S. personnel) also spied on Iraq—including planting covert, high tech listening devices to monitor Iraqi government and military communications, including Saddam Hussein's movements. This intelligence was used in a June 1996 attempted coup, and in a December 1998 attempt to assassinate Hussein with cruise missile strikes.

Richard Butler, the head of UNSCOM in 1997-98, talked with President Bill Clinton's National Security Advisor Sandy Berger on a daily basis. Butler even cleared his reports with the U.S. UNSCOM inspectors when they conducted surprise inspections (violating protocols worked out with Iraq) aimed at provoking confrontations, which were then seized upon by the U.S. to claim Iraq was not complying with inspections. This was part of a constant drumbeat of pre-2001 propaganda that Hussein was cheating on inspections, not upholding his promises, etc., etc., all of which was used to justify war.

Why did the U.S. refuse to acknowledge Iraqi cooperation and disarmament? Why did it refuse to lift sanctions, but instead use arms inspections as a means to attack Hussein's regime? Because imperialist objectives guided what the U.S. did in Iraq, not international law or UN resolutions. And those imperialist objectives included weakening Iraq as a regional power and overthrowing Saddam Hussein as part of maintaining U.S. regional dominance—not simply stripping Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. maintained sanctions because it hoped to make life so miserable for the population that Iraqis would rise up (preferably via a military coup) and topple the Hussein regime—shoring up U.S. regional control and demonstrating its power in the process.

This also meant protecting critical cornerstones of U.S.-Middle East predominance—Israel and Egypt. Israel has nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Egypt has chemical weapons. Yet neither country was criticized, sanctioned, or compelled to give up its weapons of mass destruction even though Resolution 687 claimed that disarming Iraq was part of creating a "nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region" and ridding it of all weapons of mass destruction.

"A Legitimized Act of Mass Slaughter"

What was the result of a decade of sanctions following the horrific U.S. bombing of 1991?

I visited Iraq shortly after the 1991 war was over to report for Revolution and make the documentary short film, Iraq—War Against the People. Dr. Ameed Hamid, director of Iraq's Red Crescent Society, told me in June 1991, "Since the war, Iraqi children have been exposed to biological warfare, massive biological warfare. When you destroy the infrastructure of a country, sewage with all its germs will flow into the streets; you stop pure water from reaching the children; you give them malnutrition; you prevent medicines from reaching the country. So it's an excellent environment for death and disease."

A 1999 survey by UNICEF and Iraq's Ministry of Health found that the rate of infant mortality among children under five living in south and central Iraq (where 85 percent of the population lives) had risen from 56 per 1,000 live births in 1984-1989 to 131 between 1994-1999—and was continuing to rise over time. UNICEF's estimate of the staggering death toll: 500,000 or more.

Thus, Iraqi children under five were dying at more than twice the rate they were before the 1991 Gulf War. That's roughly 5,000 Iraqi children under five dying each month thanks to U.S. actions: a World Trade Center catastrophe and more every 30 days.

Fairfield University Professor Joy Gordon summed up that U.S. policymakers had turned UN sanctions into "a legitimized act of mass slaughter." In 2002, the Iraqi government stated that 1.7 million children had died from disease or malnutrition since the imposition of sanctions in August 1990.

In 1996, U.S. Ambassador to the UN and soon-to-be Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made it clear that U.S. officials were well aware of the toll in Iraqi lives U.S. actions had taken, and they had no real qualms about it. During a CBS 60 Minutes interview, host Leslie Stahl asked her about the impact of sanctions: "We have heard that half a million Iraqi children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And—and you know, is the price worth it?" Albright's answer: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it."

(For references and more detailed discussion, see, Oil, Power & Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda, Chapters 6 and 7.)


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