The author recounts sanctions as a humanitarian disaster, and a foreign policy problem, prior to 2003. He then presents a bit of history:
The actual history of American sanctions on Iraq is fairly straightforward. On Aug. 2, 1990, in response to Iraq's invasion and annexation of Kuwait, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 661, imposing comprehensive multilateral international sanctions on Iraq and freezing all its foreign assets.
...By early 1993, opposition to sanctions was growing, especially in the Arab world, and so was dissension within the United Nations. Albright, then Washington's newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations, recalls that when she arrived in New York to take up her post in February 1993, there was confusion about sanctions policy. As she put it: ''No one had thought they would be in place for so long, but then, no one had really thought Saddam Hussein would still be there either. The intelligence was that he'd be gone fairly soon.''
That ever-reliable intelligence. Describing her trip to Arab capitals in 1993, then UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright says:
''I went to various Arab capitals with photographs we'd declassified that showed how much money Saddam Hussein was spending on his palaces,'' she told me recently. ''The Arab leaders were amazed. They hadn't known any of this. But in turn they told me about how much the Iraqi people were suffering under sanctions. They also talked about the anger over sanctions that was building in the Arab 'street.' Of course, this protest was affecting them, too. But I was appalled by what they told me, not just worried about the political consequences. And it was when I returned to the U.N. that I began to try to mitigate the humanitarian consequences of the sanctions. That's when the idea of 'food for oil' was born.''
The premise of the oil-for-food program, which was administered by the United Nations, was that Saddam Hussein would be allowed to sell a certain amount of oil. With the proceeds, Hussein's government would be permitted to buy essential humanitarian supplies, including food, medicine and materials needed to keep Iraq's crumbling infrastructure running.
...although the Security Council agreed to the oil-for-food program in April 1995, Saddam Hussein at first refused to participate, holding out for a total lifting of sanctions.... It was only in December 1996 that Hussein accepted the oil-for-food program, and only in 1997 that it became effective in alleviating some, though not all, of the torments of the Iraqi people.
At the same time, the French and the Russians were pushing hard within the Security Council either for a ratcheting down or an outright lifting of sanctions. Nancy Soderberg [then with the NSC] states flatly that the French and the Russians allowed their eagerness to develop business deals with Iraq to affect their work on the 661 Committee. ''The French and Russians wanted to make money,'' she told me. ''By the time of the second gulf war, the Russians had $40 billion in prospective deals with Saddam Hussein's regime.'' (As for the French, as the International Peace Academy'sDavid Malone puts it, ''Paris never offered an effective alternative to sanctions, simply grandstanding on humanitarian questions while doing business with Iraq.'')
And, summarizing the discussion of the paucity of alternatives:
...James Rubin [State Department spokesman under Albright] asks: ''What should we have done, just lift sanctions and hope for the best? I believed then and believe now that that was just too risky, given Saddam Hussein's past, his repeated attempts to invade his neighbors, his treatment of his own people and the weapons we knew he was developing.''
On the other hand:
These observations do not answer the question of whether any policy, no matter how strategically sound, is worth the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children -- a figure that originated in a Unicef report on infant mortality in sanctions-era Iraq and became the rallying cry of anti-sanctions campaigners. And the argument against sanctions on Iraq went beyond even this single, horrifying statistic. Sanctions, their opponents insist, transformed a country that in the 1980's was the envy of the developing world in terms of investments in health, education and physical infrastructure into a place where everyone (except the half-million or so members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and their families and cronies) was dependent on United Nations food aid, where infant mortality rates had skyrocketed, educational outcomes had collapsed and diseases that had disappeared were reappearing, sometimes at epidemic levels.
American officials may quarrel with the numbers, but there is little doubt that at least several hundred thousand children who could reasonably have been expected to live died before their fifth birthdays. The damage, according to those who fought against sanctions, was terrible, medieval. It was, in the literal sense, unconscionable, since those who died had not themselves developed weapons of mass destruction or invaded Kuwait. Rather, they were the cannon fodder for Hussein's war and the victims of his repression.
The author then describes the ways in which Saddam used sanctions to strengthen his grip on his country, enrich himself, and score propaganda points against the US.
In an earlier post, I had addressed one of the puzzles of this war - if Saddam had no WMDs, why did he not say so, and let the sanctions be lifted? Part of my answer - the sanctions helped him maintain tight control over his economy. The author details how, with control of food ration cards, this was achieved. Sound-bite: "It was a secret policeman's dream":
''Saddam could do many things to the people,'' a former Iraqi Army officer named Raed Mohammed told me, ''but while he could kill them, he could not afford to starve them. So yes, he made sure the Ministry of Trade organized things correctly. As a result, the rationing was popular. It helped the regime maintain its legitimacy. Most people thought, 'Saddam is feeding us while the Americans are trying to starve us to death.'''
...there were other, unanticipated, advantages that accrued to the regime from the rationing system. Every Iraqi head of household had to have such a ration book, issued by the Ministry of Trade, which named every immediate family member and listed the precise quantities of foodstuffs to which the bearer was entitled. Every food agent had a computerized list from the Ministry of Trade of the people he was supposed to supply with these staples.
What this meant in practice was that the regime could maintain a database on every Iraqi citizen and constantly update it, without recourse to the security services or even a network of paid informants. It was a secret policeman's dream -- and it was all provided, however inadvertently, by the sanctions the United States and Britain had conceived as a way of limiting Saddam Hussein's power.
On corruption and graft:
...the Iraqi government was able to set up a well-orchestrated system of kickback schemes in which a contract would be signed at far more than the cost of fulfilling it, with the difference deposited secretly by the selected contractors in Iraqi government-controlled accounts all over the world. As a result, Saddam Hussein and the Baath elite got rich off the sanctions, and a great many international businessmen, notably in the Arab world, in France and in Russia, made handsome profits as well.
''The Syrians, the Jordanians, the Turks -- they all had their own deals,'' Nancy Soderberg recalls.
On the propaganda battle:
...Saddam Hussein used the pretext of the sanctions to wage a propaganda war -- one that even many American officials would later concede he probably won. Not only did Hussein use the sanctions to rationalize to Iraqis every shortage they were enduring, but he also proved himself a kind of genius at exaggerating and exploiting the effects of sanctions that were already tragic enough when reported truthfully. To rally his population, and probably also in a bid to win support from Western sympathizers and the international media, Saddam Hussein orchestrated a kind of traffic in suffering -- all meant for the television cameras.
One doctor I spoke to who spent several years in a hospital in the provincial city of Baquba, about 25 miles north of Baghdad, told me that the hospital staff had instructions, whenever a child died, to keep the corpse in the morgue rather than burying it immediately as mandated by Islamic custom. ''When a sufficient number of bodies accumulated,'' he explained, ''the authorities would stage a mass funeral, railing against the sanctions, even though as often as not there was no connection between a particular child's death and the sanctions.''
...I inquired whether there had been other manipulations of the system to make things seem worse than they had really been.
''Of course,'' he replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. ''It happened all the time. For example, we would get a shipment from the Ministry of Health of vaccines provided by the World Health Organization. But then we would be instructed not to use them until they had reached or even exceeded their sell-by date. Then the television cameras would come, and we would be told to lie and tell the public how the U.N. made ordinary Iraqis suffer. You have to understand: this was a system where everyone knew what was expected of them. Most of the time, we didn't even have to be told what to do.''
So, the choices - endless appalling, unpopular sanctions, or quick, unpopular war:
...The reality of sanctions is very likely the one adduced by Lee Feinstein of the Clinton-era State Department. For implicit in his description of why the Clinton administration acted as it did is the sense that sanctions were less a policy than a stopgap -- one that was a tragedy for the Iraqi people but that also turned into a trap for the United States. Soderberg says that the controversy over sanctions allowed Saddam Hussein to transform the debate from one about his compliance with United Nations resolutions to one about the lifting of the sanctions. As a means of containing Hussein, she says, sanctions were successful, but they were a ''deteriorating'' policy.
...had sanctions really succeeded, presumably there would have been no need for the war at all. Not that every Iraqi I met preferred sanctions to war. To the contrary, some even insisted that given the choice between being subjected to open-ended sanctions and the bloody resolution of an American invasion, they would opt for the latter. ''I detest the Americans and want them to leave Iraq now, immediately,'' one Shiite notable told me. ''But they got rid of Saddam, and now they have lifted the sanctions. That's good. Otherwise, who knows how long this slow death by water torture, which the sanctions were for us, would have gone on?''
And internationally, sanctions were not a popular choice:
...[Rubin] points to the fact that in the run-up to the second gulf war, many of the same countries and campaign groups that had pushed hardest for the lifting of sanctions began to insist that sanctions and containment should be given time to work. ''After spending 1995 to 2000 criticizing Iraq sanctions, the Germans and French fell in love with containment,'' Rubin observes sardonically. ''They wanted better, more extensive containment. They were ready to rethink their opposition to sanctions.''
The author closes with a discussion of the role of sanctions as an effective tool of diplomacy, and notes:
We did not see the end of radical evil with the demise of Saddam Hussein. One has only to think of Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Il or Charles Taylor to recognize that. Sooner or later, powerful states confronted by such a figure are almost certain to turn to sanctions as part of what Albright calls the diplomatic ''tool box.'' In fact, the United States now has sanctions in place against about a dozen countries, including North Korea, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Syria and Libya. Just this month, Congress imposed a new array of economic sanctions against Myanmar after the military government in that country detained the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
...And there is always the example of apartheid South Africa -- the one instance where comprehensive, multilateral sanctions do appear to have succeeded in producing ''regime change.'' To anti-sanctions campaigners, however, the South African case is the exception that proves the rule, rather than serving as a model for future confrontations with unsavory regimes. In South Africa, they point out, the humanitarian costs were low (South Africa was nowhere near so dependent on imported staples), and there was an effective and viable opposition in the African National Congress.
I don't suppose many folks care to rally to the defense of the South African government, so what the heck - would if be reasonable to wonder whether the white regime in South Africa did not possess the quality of "radical evil" that the author ascribes to Robert Mugabe, Kim Jong Il or Charles Taylor? This point would connect to the argument that a Gandhi could succeed in India, or a Martin Luther King in the American South, in a way that a similar figure could not succeed in, for example, Iraq. Maybe sanctions worked in South Africa because the white regime was not as brutal or evil as the alternatives noted above.
[Note - if you have an unpopular cause, send it in, let me take a look, and who knows? And I did say "maybe" with South Africa, so don't belabor me with hate mail, thanks.]
UPDATE: The Brothers Judd comment on the article. They don't quite say "Give war a chance", settling for:
Is it not the lesson of the two easily successful Iraq Wars and the failure of the sanctions regime that rather than try "peaceful" means we should more readily resort to force? War saves lives; it's "peace" that kills.
One of the reasons I preferred an invasion of Iraq was that the other policy options -- including sanctions -- had a more devastating humanitarian impact. But Iraq is a special case. Rieff is trying, in this article, to suggest that military intervention may always be preferable to sanctions -- and that is just wrong.
So, as to the general rule, not so fast! But for Iraq, we can make an exception.
Oh, and I have a minor quibble with the good Doctor. He criticizes Mr. Rieff for reporting the UN figure for infant casualties, and argues that it is wildly inflated. Mr. Rieff did lead with that figure, and buried his modification, but we should note that he did, after delivering the figure of "500,000 infants" twice, say this:
American officials may quarrel with the numbers, but there is little doubt that at least several hundred thousand children who could reasonably have been expected to live died before their fifth birthdays.
From Dr. Drezner, we have:
The most precise study of this topic-- conducted by people hardly sympathetic to the sanctions regime -- concludes that between 100,000 and 227,000 children died during the acute period of sanctions imposition. These are still appalling numbers. But claiming between 273,000 to 400,000 more deaths is cheap and manipulative. [But Rieff is only quoting the UNICEF figure!!--ed. Rieff is also bright enough to know that UNICEF relied on the post-1991 Iraqi government for much of their data.]
Well, it seems that Mr. Rief exaggerated an already strong case.