“Look, imagine had we let the Republican Congress work out the sanctions. You think there's any possibility the entire world would have joined us, Russia and China, all of our allies? These are the most crippling sanctions in the history of sanctions, period. Period.” That was Vice President Joe Biden’s response when Congressman Paul Ryan criticized the Obama administration’s policy on Iran during last week’s VP debate. From there the two men sparred over which party’s approach would more “peacefully” resolve the threat posed by Iranian nuclear efforts, apparently each taking for granted that the sanctions themselves are nonviolent.
If we take Biden at his word and accept that these sanctions are the strongest ever imposed, Americans should be neither encouraged nor permitted to imagine them as peaceful. Not after witnessing the U.S.-orchestrated sanctions on Iraq from 1990 until 2003, recognized as the most devastating in history, and now judged by some to have verged on genocidal. Joy Gordon presents that view in Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions, a chilling study of how the U.S. steered the UN Security Council towards the creation and perpetuation of a sweeping humanitarian tragedy.
The following excerpt from Invisible War details how the world developed a sense of sanctions as innocuous, a view that encouraged complacency and indifference despite mounting evidence of the injustice of punishing a nation’s people for the transgressions of their leaders. The passage also presents then-Senator Biden arguing for continued reliance on the Iraq sanctions, in an exchange much like that of last week’s debate.
The Genocide Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court define genocide as including “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such . . . [by d]eliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Some have argued that the U.S. role in shaping the sanctions on Iraq turned an act of international governance into a genocidal enterprise; that U.S. officials deliberately and knowingly brought about the indiscriminate destruction of life as well as destroying the means to sustain life in Iraq.
The possibility that economic sanctions could be a human rights violation, or even a form of genocide, was not something that anyone imagined when the sanctions were first imposed on Iraq in 1990. Sieges and blockades in time of war, such as the siege of Leningrad, caused terrible loss of life. But economic sanctions, as a form of political pressure outside the context of war, had not. If nations of comparable size imposed sanctions on each other, as was the case with the United States and the Soviet Union, then the impact was little more than symbolic. If the United States sanctioned a small nation, such as Cuba, then the targeted nation could shift its trade to the Soviet bloc. Consequently, economic sanctions during the Cold War were never devastating. In fact, they were viewed as a “middle route”: they were seen as nonviolent, in contrast to military intervention, but also as having more of a bite than diplomatic efforts. As of the late 1980s there was little concern about the ethics or humanitarian impact of sanctions. For the most part, those who wrote about sanctions were concerned with whether they were likely to succeed in getting the target state to change its policies, or with the difficulty of keeping sanctions in place when the members of an alliance were losing trade opportunities.
Not only were sanctions seen as innocuous, but the case of South Africa made them seem quite attractive. The Black South African population itself—the population most likely to be harmed by economic sanctions—called for sanctions against South Africa as an act of international solidarity. The sanctions imposed on South Africa were effective for a combination of reasons. They were accompanied by international diplomacy and social isolation of the apartheid regime within the international community. In addition to the international pressure, there was growing domestic opposition from labor, students, and political organizations, which emerged as forces within South Africa’s increasing urbanization and industrialization. One commentator noted that the “hurting stalemate” resulted in moderates from both sides negotiating with each other, and there were also reformist elites that emerged within the Afrikaner-dominated National Party. In any event, there was little ground to claim that the sanctions were hurting an innocent population against its will. In the end the apartheid regime gave way to democracy and sanctions were viewed as having an important and effective role in accomplishing this.
But the sanctions regime imposed on South Africa was anomalous in every regard: typically there is little support from the population that is harmed, and sanctions rarely induce the targeted state to change its practices. On the contrary, the more typical response is a “rally ’round the flag” effect in which the population supports the state in the face of what is seen as aggression by a foreign power. Furthermore, the most optimistic studies of sanctions in the twentieth century found that sanctions influence the target nation only about one-third of the time. Critics have argued that even this number includes cases that are overdetermined, and that if we look only at the number of cases where sanctions are clearly the determinative factor in changing a state’s policies, sanctions were clearly effective in only about 5 percent of the cases in the twentieth century.
But while the South Africa case may have been anomalous, it was also deeply influential: by the late 1980s, economic sanctions were very much identified as an effective, nonviolent tool that was successful in bringing about democratic change. In 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait, much of the support for economic sanctions came from those who opposed military intervention and advocated a nonviolent response. Many of these groups came to have misgivings, not only because they saw the sanctions cause such suffering in Iraq later on but also because it seemed that, in retrospect, the George H. W. Bush administration had only introduced sanctions as an intermediate measure, to lay the groundwork for a military incursion. The Iraq sanctions changed the views of many peace activists and organizations: “Economic sanctions and the UN Charter, rather than serving as the ‘threshold for peace,’ became a ‘trap door to war.’ ”
For the first few months of the sanctions regime in 1990 the first Bush administration insisted that sanctions were proving to be an effective tool for pressuring Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, with senior Bush administration officials maintaining they were “increasingly convinced that economic sanctions are seriously hurting Saddam Hussein’s economy and military.” Media coverage described how the sanctions were blocking Iraq’s access to raw materials and spare parts, and how the shortages in Iraq undermined industrial production and forced the state to begin rationing gasoline. The gasoline shortages, in turn, meant that Iraq’s military capacity would be compromised.
But in November 1990 the administration changed position, insisting that the sanctions were failing and that the Security Council must authorize military intervention. Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney argued that the sanctions were having little effect on the Iraqi regime and were giving Iraq “breathing space” to expand its military—“[Saddam Hussein] can ride them out.” The administration’s about-face was obvious:
Some White House and State Department officials who two months ago said the international embargo was “working” and would force Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait, have shifted their public predictions of its success. Now, they say, the cutoff of trade may not work or may take so long that the US-led coalition opposed to Iraq could crumble.
The Bush administration got what it wanted. In late November the Security Council passed Resolution 678, which authorized member states to use “all necessary means” against Iraq if it did not withdraw from Kuwait by January 15. For the next two months there was an intensive lobbying campaign within the United States, coming from several sources, to maintain the sanctions rather than go into a U.S.-led war against Iraq. The leading scholars on economic sanctions testified at congressional hearings and published op-ed articles saying that the sanctions were likely to work: “The sanctions against Iraq were imposed so swiftly, decisively, and comprehensively that together with a credible military threat, there is a high probability they can contribute to an Iraqi withdrawal.”
Members of Congress openly questioned the necessity of going to war, arguing that sanctions should be given more time to work. In a Senate committee hearing, Senator Joseph Biden asked Secretary of State James Baker to explain
what you told this committee just 3 months ago. You said that the sanctions policy is, “the only peaceful path to meeting the objectives set by the President.” You continued by stating, “What we ask most of the American people is to stand firm, be patient and remain united.” What we are now hearing from some of the administration is that the American people do not have such patience, yet I find not one single, solitary shred of evidence to sustain that claim.
In December 1990 the Senate Armed Services Committee held a set of hearings that included testimony from an impressive array of speakers with military and security credentials. Two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, William J. Crowe Jr. and David C. Jones, both suggested waiting for a year or more to see if the situation could be resolved through sanctions rather than rushing to war. William E. Odom, who had been director of Army Intelligence and had served as head of the National Security Agency, testified as well that the sanctions would reduce Iraq’s military capacity while possibly providing a peaceful solution to the conflict. Former secretary of defense James Schlesinger testified that “lack of spare parts will force Iraq to begin to cannibalize its military equipment. Military industry, as yet significantly unaffected, will follow the downward path of civilian industry. In short, the burden on both Iraq’s economy and her military strength will steadily increase.” Former secretary of defense Robert McNamara testified that the United States should be prepared to continue sanctions for twelve to eighteen months, “if that offers an opportunity to achieve our political objective without the loss of American lives. Who can doubt that a year of blockade will be cheaper than a week of war?”
William Webster, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), testified that the sanctions had already made a substantial impact on Iraq’s economy.
All sectors of the Iraq economy are feeling the pinch of sanctions and many industries have largely shut down . . . The blockade and embargo have worked more effectively than Saddam probably expected. More than 97 percent of imports and 90 percent of exports have been shut off . . . Iraq’s efforts to break sanctions have thus far been largely unsuccessful.
Webster testified as well that the sanctions were likely to degrade Iraq’s military capacity over time: “The embargo will eventually hurt Iraqi armor by preventing the replacement . . . and creating shortages of [critical parts].” House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt maintained that economic sanctions should be given “about a year” to work before military action was considered. Senator Sam Nunn, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had a leading role in Congress in advocating for the continuation of sanctions and withholding authority for U.S. military action.
When Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that waiting out the sanctions was “not without cost,” Senator Nunn confronted him with a statement from General Norman Schwartzkopf, the commander in the field, who had said, “At present, I think time is on the side of the world coalition. I really don’t think there is going to come a time when time is on the side of Iraq, as long as the sanctions are in effect.” Rather than urging military action, according to Nunn, Schwartzkopf had said, “If the alternative to dying is sitting out in the sun for another summer, that’s not a bad alternative.”
The skepticism toward the sudden urgency of going to war and the attractiveness of continuing sanctions was also heard outside Washington as well. A letter to the editor of the New York Times argued that “sanctions just may prevent a war with Iraq. The uncertainties and risks that go along with sanctions are certainly no greater than those that go along with war.” The Catholic theologian and human rights scholar Robert F. Drinan wrote that sanctions “have not yet been tried and found wanting.” Citing the Bible, one person wrote in a letter to the editor, “ ‘We look for peace, but find no good, for a time of healing, but there is terror instead’ (Jeremiah 8:15) . . . every day we became more baffled by President Bush’s unwillingness to allow sanctions to squeeze the economic life out of the Iraqi regime.” Even conservative columnists such as George Will shared this view: “Do not bet on military victory delivered from the air, with no American blood on the ground. A better bet is to give today’s sanctions, which have sharp teeth, time to bite.” There was also widespread support in other nations for the sanctions. In Canada, for example, a November 1990 poll showed that two in three Canadians believed that sanctions should be “given more time to work” before Canada considered participating in any military undertaking.
During this debate in 1990 there were no criticisms of the sanctions on humanitarian grounds. This was in part because the impact of the sanctions at that juncture was not severe, or at least not particularly visible. Although food prices had gone up in Iraq and industry had started to slow, there were none of the dramatic humanitarian effects that would come about six months later. But the support for sanctions from the liberal and humanitarian perspectives came about primarily because the Bush administration was clearly moving toward the “military option,” and continuing sanctions seemed a far less bloody alternative.
But while theologians, antiwar activists, and academics argued in 1990 for giving sanctions “more time to work,” it was also true that these were different sanctions from any that had been seen before. They were comprehensive in every regard. Because these sanctions were imposed by the Security Council, binding every member of the UN, Iraq did not have the option of shifting trade to another bloc. The sanctions were not limited to weapons or strategic goods but affected the entire economy. Because Iraq was so highly dependent on oil exports for its income and on imports for every part of its economy and social services, it was particularly vulnerable to these measures.
The sanctions initially imposed in August 1990 caused considerable disruption to the economy. But if nothing more had occurred, Iraq might well have increased its agriculture and industrial production enough to compensate for much of the loss. Iraq had a highly educated society with a substantial middle class and well-trained professionals in most fields. The government of Iraq also took some measures to respond to the situation. Immediately after the sanctions were imposed the Iraqi government established food rations, which prevented starvation, and also put into place a number of measures to stimulate agricultural production. But the Persian Gulf War in 1991 undermined any possibility that Iraq might have expanded domestic production enough to compensate. The blanket destruction of the coalition’s bombing campaign, combined with the sanctions already in place, meant that Iraq was limited to restoring electricity, agriculture, and industry only with cannibalized parts and jerry-rigging, and eventually those measures collapsed as well. Even with the relief work done by UN agencies, as well as the Oil-for-Food Programme, Iraq never recovered from the devastation, and never came close to restoring the standard of living that most Iraqis had had up to 1990.