Worth It


Invisible 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 punishment

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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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Ironically, 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.

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Astonishingly, 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 unremitting.

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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 gone.’

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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.

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July 26, 2010