Economic sanctions have suddenly resurfaced in the international debate about Iraq, after months of near silence on the issue. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in particular, has advanced the notion that one of the benefits of a war with Iraq would be the prospect of lifting the punitive economic sanctions that have been in place since the end of the Gulf war in 1991. Echoing the words of George W. Bush in his September address to the UN General Assembly that “liberty for the Iraqi people is a great moral cause,” Blair argued that ending Iraqis’ suffering forms part of a “moral case” for war with Iraq. Pro-war commentators in the US have begun to attack the peace movement because the default anti-war position—inspections, not war—would keep sanctions in effect indefinitely.

Anyone concerned with the welfare of Iraqis certainly must welcome an end to 12 years of harmful conflict fought mainly by economic warfare. But the current debate is still plagued by the premise, which has dogged years of tortuous wrangling over sanctions, that the international community bears little responsibility for the plight of Iraqis. Not only do the US and Britain continue to disavow any culpability for sanctions in Iraq’s humanitarian crisis, but they do not appear to have thought deeply about how to ameliorate the further disruption of Iraqi lives and livelihoods that war will bring. Bush and Blair’s recourse to moral reasoning is flawed on its face, yet in the absence of third and fourth alternatives for “what to do” about Iraq, the debate has ground to a halt at a humanitarian Hobson’s choice between war or sanctions.

Suffering and Self-Exculpation

Blair’s recent statement to the House of Commons mentions child mortality, access to potable water, dependence on food rations and political repression as examples of the hardships experienced by Iraqis. The latter is squarely the responsibility of the Iraqi regime, and its significance for Iraqis’ quality of life should not be underestimated. On the other three issues, however, Blair’s analysis is incomplete: it is not only the level of deprivation in Iraq which is striking, but the change that has taken place over the past 12 years. Child (under-five) mortality has surged under sanctions. UNICEF documented a rise from 56 deaths per 1,000 live births in the period 1984-1989 to 131 deaths per 1,000 live births in the period 1994-1999, corresponding to 500,000 “excess deaths.” The UN Security Council’s own 1999 assessment of the humanitarian situation in Iraq stressed that “before 1991…90 percent of the population had access to an abundant quantity of safe drinking water.” Before 1991 average caloric intake was above 3,100 kilocalories per day, and Iraqis enjoyed the highest rate of food availability per capita in the region, without government food rations. All other humanitarian indicators give a similar message: while the mismanagement of the Iraqi economy is a long-term problem, the past 12 years have been exceptional.

Current US and British policy, including the “moral case” for war, is premised on the analysis that this dramatic drop in living standards is due to the policies of the Iraqi regime. Recent statements of this position include a November 2002 press release by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and a White House report in January. Both of these characterize as “lies” the claim that sanctions have caused hardship—except for the way “Saddam implements sanctions.” In other words, the Iraqi humanitarian crisis could have been averted had the “Oil for Food” program in place since 1996 been implemented differently. Under Oil for Food, Iraq can sell unlimited quantities of oil, and then apply to the UN to use the proceeds to purchase civilian goods.

One argument put forward by both the FCO and White House briefings is that suffering in Iraq owes much to the Iraqi government’s failure to distribute or misuse of humanitarian supplies imported. The FCO states that “the Iraqi regime, which seeks to portray these UN controls [sanctions] as the cause of Iraqi suffering, has itself seriously disrupted both the UN supplies and the source of the UN’s humanitarian funding.” The White House points to claims that Iraq has been exporting baby milk and “hoarding” medicines in warehouses.

If the regime does indeed misuse or hoard humanitarian supplies, does this happen on a scale that can account for the collapse in living standards in Iraq? The evidence says no. Benon Sevan, executive director of the UN Office of the Iraq Program, has repeatedly stated that UN monitoring of the end use of Oil for Food imports prevents any large-scale diversion from intended humanitarian purposes. Other UN agency reports, including internal and confidential reports which otherwise criticize the Iraqi government, paint similar pictures. There is no need to invoke false notions of Iraqi government benevolence to understand this. Among the battery of carrots and sticks used by the Iraqi regime to control the people, its control over Oil for Food rations is the largest carrot. Now that Oil for Food has made the regime in effect the sole provider for the Iraqi people, it appears to see the smooth running of Oil for Food as aligned with its own interests.

The US and Britain further claim that Oil for Food would be adequate if not plagued by short-term funding problems. The FCO points to the Iraqi government’s periodic cessation of oil exports, which “reduced the humanitarian funding available [in 2002] by $1.2 billion compared to last.” While the regime undoubtedly placed political objectives before humanitarian concerns in this instance, there is more to the story. Another obstacle to effective implementation of Oil for Food has been the depression of oil sales occasioned by the retroactive pricing of Iraqi oil. This was imposed by the US and Britain in an effort to prevent surcharges to Iraqi oil that resulted in kickbacks to the Iraqi government. Some $30-50 million in kickbacks were indeed prevented, by UN estimates, but at a cost of $2-3 billion to the humanitarian program. The tradeoff between coercion and humanitarian concerns was thereby given an unusually explicit valuation: the Iraqi people were made to pay sixty dollars’ worth of humanitarian supplies for every dollar that the Iraqi leadership was denied.

Eliding the Question

Third, both US and British officials commonly argue that the crisis in Iraq has ensued because the wrong things are imported. The Iraqi elite lives in luxury, while the majority starve. There certainly are many examples of wasteful imports: recent Oil for Food distribution plans include details of a “Project for the Construction of an Olympic Sports City.” The aforementioned FCO press release points to “12,000 tons of mobile phones,” while the White House report mentions “an expensive gamma knife” before repeating the obligatory denunciations of Saddam Hussein’s many “presidential palaces.” Redistribution—from elite to poor, from mobile phones to water filters—and a different spending pattern could have averted the humanitarian crisis, these documents assert.

Undoubted abuses notwithstanding, Oil for Food is not dominated by the import of unnecessary commodities, as the casual reader of US-British press releases might infer. The UN World Food Program estimates that “80 percent of the average household income is constituted by the [Oil for Food] food ration, while 60 percent of the population (around 16 million persons) rely solely on the monthly food basket to meet all household needs,” and that “[m]ilitary conflict would have a highly disruptive impact on the implementation of the Oil for Food Program.” Oil for Food is the lifeline of ordinary Iraqis.

Further, focusing on distribution elides the question of why there is a need for a ration in the first place. During 12 years of sanctions, according to UN and OPEC figures, Iraq has generated about as much oil revenue ($63 billion) as it did in the single year of 1980 ($59 billion), when the Iraqi population was half of what it is today. As Yale economist William Nordhaus puts it, some $200 billion of oil revenue, corresponding to eight years’ GDP, has been lost under sanctions. Meanwhile, Oil for Food bureaucracy, deductions for compensation payments to victims of the 1991 Gulf war, delays in contracting and other impediments have kept the value of goods actually arriving under Oil for Food to a mere $25 billion over six years. This corresponds to 50-60 cents per Iraqi per day for the past six years, and nothing at all for six years before that. Most of this amount has necessarily gone towards daily consumption needs, and has left little room for investment in rebuilding infrastructure devastated by allied bombing in 1991. The UN estimated that $29 billion of investment was required in 1991 to restore essential civilian infrastructure to elementary levels. Poverty, coupled with sanctions’ ban on foreign investment, leaves Iraqi sanitation systems and electrical power plants in a lamentable state 12 years after the initial damage.

Fifty cents a day is a starvation ration. No matter how it is distributed, it is inadequate. Iraqi elite luxuries are distasteful next to overwhelming deprivation, but false priorities in the implementation of Oil for Food do not account for the level of hardship in which Iraqis find themselves. The corruption of the Iraqi regime is no excuse for the international community to ignore the damage caused by its attempts to coerce the Iraqi leadership.

Grim Scenarios

The refusal of the US and British governments to recognize the impact of sanctions has already undermined efforts to reform sanctions. “Smart sanctions” were adopted in 2002 without any preceding assessment of humanitarian needs, and with consequent failure to identify and address the key constraints on economic recovery and well-being in Iraq. Outside options were not considered, and changes were confined to import procedures, apparently in the belief that a commodity import program is an acceptable long-term substitute for economic recovery.

This failure to acknowledge the humanitarian implications of policy continues even as war is considered. One can certainly imagine relatively benign war scenarios, including a short war followed by the rapid institution of a popularly legitimate and administratively effective new regime. Such a scenario would lead to humanitarian outcomes which rapidly would become preferable to the current harmful status quo. But such scenarios should not be assumed. UN assessments written for internal planning purposes, but leaked to the public, indicate that the humanitarian risks involved are very high. One report, produced by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, estimated a “medium” scenario in which, “[i]n the event of a crisis, 30 percent of children under five would be at risk of death from malnutrition.” Even this projected “medium” scenario would be a disaster, replete with large refugee flows, infrastructural decimation and consequent suspension of essential services, an inability of the Iraqi health care system to cope with crisis, and acute and large-scale food shortages. Other UN and NGO studies give similar assessments, and all studies stress the highly unusual vulnerability of the Iraqi population, whose assets and other coping mechanisms have been decimated by years of war and sanctions. If the Oil for Food rationing system is suspended when hostilities break out, many Iraqi households will have no lifeline at all once their meager stockpiles of staples run out.

When asked about these grim scenarios, Elliot Abrams, new National Security Council senior director for the Near East and North Africa, dismissed UN contingency planning as “just plain speculation” and “just pulling [numbers] out of thin air.” British Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short characterized NGO concern about the lack of preparedness for the humanitarian consequences of war as “grandstanding.” Given the uncertainty involved, it is clear that any estimates of consequences will have high variance. However, this is not a reason not to evaluate the consequences of policy, and these officials’ breezy dismissal of UN and NGO concerns does not inspire confidence.

Not only have the US and Britain failed to acknowledge the humanitarian risks of war, they have failed to pledge substantial resources toward mitigating them. As one USAID official said in a press briefing: “Nobody budgeted for an event in Iraq. We don’t have a budget for it.” The US government has pledged a total of $79 million for humanitarian supplies, and aims to feed one million Iraqis, according to USAID. This amount is no more than what the Oil for Food program delivers in five days, and contrasts sharply with the UN estimates that some 16 million Iraqis are wholly dependent on handouts. Other governments, meanwhile, have made no specific pledges. Even before the crisis has started, this lack of commitment is harming humanitarian efforts. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs states that “all UN agencies have been facing severe funding constraints that are preventing them from reaching even minimum levels of preparedness.” Finally, the White House has stated that the US is unlikely to contribute significant sums towards the reconstruction of Iraq after a war, as “there are a variety of means that Iraq has to be able to shoulder much of the burden for their own reconstruction.”

Humanitarian Hobson’s Choice

Given the high humanitarian costs and risks of both sanctions and war, alternative policy options should command a strong claim to attention. Yet current policy debate treats sanctions’ continuation as given, and the British position is that “the only alternative to disarmament by the United Nations is that we keep sanctions in place year on year.” Insofar as the US and Britain increasingly equate disarmament with war, the “moral case” has been constrained to options that leave Iraqis to shoulder the entire burden of the international community’s conflict with the Iraqi leadership. Not surprisingly, many independent arbiters of morality, including the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, have questioned Bush and Blair’s attempts to cloak the war in moral garb.

The political ramifications of disarmament are complicated, and it is a common observation that the Iraqi government has not been given clear incentives to disarm. UN Security Council Resolution 687 states that the Security Council shall consider the lifting of sanctions if Iraq is found to have fully complied with disarmament, while Resolution 1284 stipulates that sanctions will be suspended if Iraqi cooperates. At the same time, three successive US administrations have firmly stated an alternative objective, as Secretary of State Colin Powell did when, in comments to the Financial Times, he described “sanctions and the pressure of sanctions [as] part of a strategy of regime change.” On February 28, as Iraq began to destroy its proscribed al-Samoud missiles, the White House reaffirmed that Iraqi disarmament is not enough to avert war. “Regime change” has recently slipped into British government statements as well, and Blair recently stated that “[r]idding the world of Saddam would be an act of humanity. It is leaving him there that is in truth inhumane.”

Few would argue that Iraqis would not be better off under a different leadership, but “regime change” has a catch: while the Iraqi regime could deliver disarmament, it cannot and will not deliver its own downfall. Raad Alkadiri states a common view when he argues that by 1997 Saddam Hussein believed “once and for all that, irrespective of the kind sentiments of Iraq’s ‘friends’ in the Security Council, nothing could overturn US and British support for sanctions while he remains in power.” The obstinacy of the US and Britain, as well as the Iraqi regime, in the political conflict over disarmament has already inflicted tremendous suffering, through sanctions, upon those Iraqis for whose well-being Bush and Blair now profess such abiding concern. The apparently impending war may very well do the same.

How to cite this article:

Per Oskar Klevnas "Sanctions and the “Moral Case” for War," Middle East Report Online, March 04, 2003.

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