A public debate over the US-led economic sanctions policy against Iraq is long overdue. More than four years have passed since the Gulf war ceasefire and Baghdad’s bloody suppression of the popular uprisings that followed. The regime, the ostensible target of the sanctions, appears to be firmly in place. The vast majority of individual Iraqis, whose best interests are cited as a major justification for the policy, are suffering a degree of trauma and deprivation that has already set in motion a dynamic of social disintegration and self-destruction that will affect the entire region — and may be very difficult to reverse.
The sanctions are only one factor, to be sure, and even here the regime has collaborated with its Western and regional adversaries to wage a campaign of forced hunger and impoverishment against its own people. The grounds of sovereignty on which Baghdad has rejected the limited food-for-oil options of Security Council Resolutions 706 and 712 are specious in the extreme.
Equally bogus is the US argument that sanctions should stay because the regime has devoted scarce resources to building lavish palaces for the ruling family and its entourage. Potentially more substantive arguments citing the regime’s worsening human rights record and its apparent continuing biological and chemical weapons programs equally miss the point.
The desirability of seeing an accountable and representative government in Iraq, or of constraining the military and repressive potential of the one that now exists, is not at issue. Evidence for this regime’s lack of legitimacy, and a widespread desire among Iraqis to see it replaced, is abundant. What is at issue is simply stated: whether comprehensive economic sanctions are a legitimate and practical means of serving those ends.
Sanctions can be an effective and appropriate means of multilateral coercion in circumstances such as South Africa, when they were a weapon of solidarity with a well-organized and representative popular movement in opposition to the apartheid regime. In the case of Iraq, the similarly transparent illegitimacy of the regime has not evoked anything like a mobilized and united opposition. Some Iraqi opponents of the regime argue that sanctions at least buy time for such efforts, but the record of the past four years is that they have not contributed to the consolidation of such an opposition. The sanctions policy has, if anything, been a point of further division.
The continuation of comprehensive economic sanctions reflects a policy of default that long ago lost whatever rationale it may have had at the time of the Gulf war. It targets Iraqi society rather than the narrow clique it purports to remove, and further weakens society’s capacities vis-à-vis this or any successor regime. To compel ordinary Iraqis to endure deprivation on this scale simply to allow the Clinton administration to pretend that it has a strategy is to participate, with the Iraqi regime, in an approach that is profoundly cynical and inhumane. It is critical to change the present sanctions policy before even more irreversibly destructive consequences ensue.