Worth It

Email Print



War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions
by Joy Gordon
Harvard, 359 pp

Few people
now remember that for many months after the First World War ended
in November 1918 the blockade of Germany, where the population was
already on the edge of starvation, was maintained with full rigour.
By the following spring, the German authorities were projecting
a 50 per cent increase in the infant mortality rate. In a later
memoir, John Maynard Keynes attributed the prolongation of civilian

to a cause
inherent in bureaucracy. The blockade had become by that time
a very perfect instrument. It had taken four years to create and
was Whitehall’s finest achievement; it had evoked the qualities
of the English at their subtlest. Its authors had grown to love
it for its own sake; it included some recent improvements, which
would be wasted if it came to an end; it was very complicated,
and a vast organisation had established a vested interest. The
experts reported, therefore, that it was our one instrument for
imposing our peace terms on Germany, and that once suspended it
could hardly be reimposed.

In the event,
the ban on food imports was lifted (for fear of promoting Bolshevism)
before Germany accepted the punitive terms of the Versailles treaty,
but blockades have retained their popularity as a weapon deployed
by strong powers against the weak. In most instances they have been
ineffective in achieving their stated purpose, the notable exception
being the sanctions reluctantly levied by Western governments in
response to popular pressure against the South African apartheid
regime. More often they constitute an exercise in vindictiveness,
as with the US embargo on Vietnam and Cambodia after the Indochina
war, or Israel’s blockade of Gaza with the expressed intention
of ‘putting the population on a diet’.

The multiple
disasters inflicted on Iraq since the 2003 Anglo-American invasion
have tended to overshadow the lethally effective ‘invisible
war’ waged against Iraqi civilians between August 1990 and
May 2003 with the full authority of the United Nations and the tireless
attention of the US and British governments. As an example of carefully
crafted callousness this story offers a close parallel to Britain’s
German exercise. In both cases, sanctions were retained after their
original purpose – the military defeat of the blockaded nation
– had been achieved, and in both cases they targeted civilians
while leaving their rulers relatively unscathed. Those implementing
the blockades argued vehemently that their suspension would mean
a reversal of the victory on the battlefield and the defeated power’s
return to its bellicose ways.

Even at the
time, the sanctions against Iraq drew only sporadic public comment,
and even less attention was paid to the bureaucratic manoeuvres
in Washington, always with the dutiful assistance of London, which
ensured the deaths of half a million children, among other consequences.
In her excellent book Joy Gordon charts these in horrifying detail,
while providing a rigorous examination of the alibis and excuses
given by sanctioneers at the time and since: the suffering was entirely
due to Saddam Hussein’s obduracy; supplies of food and medicine
were available but withheld by the regime in the interests of propaganda;
the Oil For Food programme was corrupt and enabled Saddam to evade
the impact of sanctions, and so on.

The legal foundation
for the campaign rested on Security Council Resolution 661, passed
in August 1990 shortly after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. This
prohibited all UN member states from trading with Iraq: the ban
crucially included all oil purchases. Leaving nothing to chance,
the US proffered douceurs of economic aid prior to the vote
to impoverished countries such as Ethiopia and Zaire, which were
then serving as temporary members of the Security Council. After
voting against the resolution, the Yemeni ambassador to the UN was
tersely informed: ‘That will be the most expensive “no”
vote you ever cast.’ Three days later the US cancelled its
entire aid programme to his country.

Iraqi sanctions were popular at first among the liberal-minded because
they appeared to offer an alternative to war. As the Bush administration’s
determination to go to war became clearer, allowing sanctions ‘time
to work’ became a rallying cry for the peace party. After all,
economic sanctions had brought the apartheid regime to its knees
without bloodshed or noticeable suffering among the population:
why not use them against Saddam Hussein? Less well publicised were
the severe US sanctions against Cambodia, motivated by little other
than spite over the regime’s defeat of the Khmer Rouge with
Vietnamese help. Coincidentally, these were being phased out in
1990 after embarrassing revelations of continuing covert American
support for the Khmer Rouge.

The war, when
it came, was directed as much against Iraq’s economy as against
its army in Kuwait. Key features of the bombing campaign were designed
– as its principal planner, Colonel John Warden of the US air
force, explained to me afterwards – to destroy the ‘critical
nodes’ that enabled Iraq to function as a modern industrial
society. The air force had dreamed of being able to do this sort
of thing since before the Second World War, and Warden thought the
introduction of precision-guided ‘smart bombs’ now made
it a practical proposition. Iraq’s electrical power plants,
telecommunications centres, oil refineries, sewage plants and other
key infrastructure were destroyed or badly damaged. Warden, I recall,
was piqued that bombing in addition to his original scheme had obscured
the impact of his surgical assault on the pillars supporting modern
Iraqi society.

much of the damage was repaired within a year of the war’s
end following a national campaign billed as ‘the counter-attack’.
I had visited al-Dora power station on the edge of Baghdad in July
1991 and found a heap of twisted metal. Seven months later, I found
half of the station functioning again. The control room, totally
demolished by allied bombs, had been re-created, complete with the
pastel colour scheme favoured by its original Italian designers.
Looking closely at the control panel dials I could see that the
numbers had been painstakingly painted on with a thin brush. If
this reconstruction programme had been able to make use of the billions
of dollars that had once poured in from oil sales, Iraq could soon
have returned to its prewar condition. But the counter-attack was
fought with makeshift repairs and cannibalised spare parts. As the
blockade persisted, the deterioration of the infrastructure was

The first intimation
that the blockade would continue even though Iraq had been evicted
from Kuwait came in an offhand remark by Bush at a press briefing
on 16 April 1991. There would be no normal relations with Iraq,
he said, until ‘Saddam Hussein is out of there’: ‘We
will continue the economic sanctions.’ Officially, the US was
on record as pledging that sanctions would be lifted once Kuwait
had been compensated for the damage wrought during six months of
occupation and once it was confirmed that Iraq no longer possessed
‘weapons of mass destruction’ or the capacity to make
them. A special UN inspection organisation, Unscom, was created,
headed by the Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus, a veteran of arms control
negotiations. But in case anyone had missed the point of Bush’s
statement, his deputy national security adviser, Robert Gates (now
Obama’s secretary of defence), spelled it out a few weeks later:
‘Saddam is discredited and cannot be redeemed. His leadership
will never be accepted by the world community. Therefore,’
Gates continued, ‘Iraqis will pay the price while he remains
in power. All possible sanctions will be maintained until he is

Despite this
explicit confirmation that the official justification for sanctions
was irrelevant, Saddam’s supposed refusal to turn over his
deadly arsenal would be brandished by the sanctioneers whenever
the price being paid by Iraqis attracted attention from the outside
world. And although Bush and Gates claimed that Saddam, not his
weapons, was the real object of the sanctions, I was assured at
the time by officials at CIA headquarters in Langley that an overthrow
of the dictator by a population rendered desperate by sanctions
was ‘the least likely alternative’. The impoverishment
of Iraq – not to mention the exclusion of its oil from the
global market to the benefit of oil prices – was not a means
to an end: it was the end.

Visiting Iraq
in that first summer of postwar sanctions I found a population stunned
by the disaster that was reducing them to a Third World standard
of living. Baghdad auction houses were filled with the heirlooms
and furniture of the middle classes, hawked in a desperate effort
to stay ahead of inflation. In the upper-middle-class enclave of
Mansour, I watched as a frantic crowd of housewives rushed to collect
food supplies distributed by the American charity Catholic Relief
Services. Doctors, most of them trained in Britain, displayed their
empty dispensaries. Everywhere, people asked when sanctions would
be lifted, assuming that it could only be a matter of months at
the most (a belief initially shared by Saddam). The notion that
they would still be in force a decade later was unimaginable.

the rest of the article

26, 2010

Email Print