Remember the sanctions

In 1990, despite 8 years of devastating war with Iran, Iraq could boast some of the most advanced medical, commercial, and energy infrastructure in the Middle East. This was Saddam Hussein's way of buying off the population — keep quiet and you'll live a comfortable life. Along with security (purchased at a terrible human cost), high material living standards were about the only benefit of Hussein's dictatorship.

Ten years later that level of development had been utterly destroyed, and living standards in Iraq ranked among the most miserable in the world. What happened? Hussein's instincts as a dictator didn't change. Iraq still had oil, which paid for everything in the first place. The difference was American policy.

In the 1980s Hussein was a useful ally for the United States, but with the invasion of Kuwait he became a potential threat to American power over the Middle East. The USA reacted by first brutally attacking Iraq, devastating its sanitation and power infrastructure, its roads and bridges, with weeks of bombing, as well as massacring much of its army. Then, since Bush I was unwilling to conquer the country, he merely ensured that Iraq would be unable to rebuild. A crippled country would be easier to deal with.

Bush had an extremely effective weapon at his disposal. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the UN reacted by forbidding any trade whatsoever with Iraq. Since Iraq relied overwhelmingly on imports for its food, medicine, and machinery, the sanctions hit civilians hard. But things got much worse after the USA bombed much of the civilian infrastructure to rubble. Diseases swept the populace as sanitation systems broke down and medicine was unavailable. Food supplies ran short. Without spare parts, electricity generators and communication systems couldn't be rebuilt. In the immediate aftermath of the 1991 war, sanctions killed far more people than bombs or bullets.

And the sanctions went on, with Clinton continuing Bush I's "containment" of Iraq. The devastation they wrecked against civilians turned virtually the whole world against them. But the USA wielded a veto in the UN, and blocked any attempts to end them. In time the severity of the sanctions regime was slightly alleviated with the oil for food program, in which Iraq could buy food and medicine by selling limited amounts of oil to the UN. But oil for food only stabilized an intolerable situation. Vital civilian infrastructure could not be repaired, the Iraqi economy remained caught in depression; the suffering continued. As Iraq sank back into desperate poverty, its middle class was destroyed, its medical system suffered catastrophic decline, death rates shot up. Perhaps 1 million people died as a result of the sanctions. The United States had succeeded in taking from the Iraqi people the single unmitigated benefit they had enjoyed under Saddam Hussein.

There's a strong argument to be made that the sanctions met the legal definition of crimes against humanity. Some, including one of the two directors of the oil for food program who resigned in protest at the devastation of the sanctions, went so far as to label the sanctions genocide. But whatever the legal classification, there's no question that the sanctions were a policy of mass murder directed against the innocent of Iraq, used as a tool of American state policy.

Yet during the sanctions decade (actually over 12 years) there was virtually no debate about them in American civil society. The media didn't report on their effects, government leaders dismissed criticisms as pro-Hussein propaganda, discussion centered on whether to be more punitive. After the invasion there has been even less of a will to confront one of the worst atrocities ever committed by US policymakers. Ignorance of the sanctions is so deep that articles like this one can claim that infrastructure disrepair was caused by Saddam Hussein's insidious neglect, rather than the USA blocking spare parts imports.

One sanctions-related topic is up for discussion tho: corruption in the oil for food program. The New York Times is now writing long articles about allegations pushed by anti-UN forces in the USA that the oil for food program was illegally flexible in administering the exports and imports of Iraq.

I think it tells us something about public culture when this sort of flexibility — which probably saved a number of Iraqis' lives by making the sanctions slightly less harsh — should become controversial, while the policies that caused mass death have been wiped clean from historical memory.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

an excellent point i agree with completely. i just put down a molly ivins column in frustration because once again, even among people who might know the horror sanctions caused, the blame for iraq's awful infrastructure rests with saddam hussein, and clinton's policy is unmentioned.

this stripping of context is so prevalent -- the NYT piece on instant-runoff voting mentions that ann arbor, mich., gave up on IRV after one election in the '70s, but neglects to mention that elections pretty much everywhere else in the world use some form of proportional or ranking system. and the tribune ran a story on pre-referendum unrest in venezuela that didn't mention the coup attempt on chavez two years ago, much less the US's role in supporting it.

how does that fair and balanced chinese press compare?