Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions

Eric Herring weighs the human cost of the West's 13-year campaign to undermine Saddam Hussein

September 23, 2010

We have heard that half a million children have died ... is the price worth it?" journalist Lesley Stahl asked Madeleine Albright, the US Ambassador to the UN at the time, in 1996. Stahl was referring to the comprehensive UN economic sanctions that had been enforced against Iraq for nearly six years by that point. Albright responded: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price - we think the price is worth it."

The devastation of much of Iraqi society between 1990 and 2003 through those sanctions, driven by the US and to a lesser extent the UK, is a story that has been buried for the most part under layer on layer of diplomatic technicalities, obfuscation and sheer indifference. Joy Gordon's important book not only sets out the story superbly well, but demonstrates its wider implications for our understanding of economic sanctions, international law and global governance. She shows that a commitment to scholarly rigour and a commitment to common humanity can be mutually reinforcing, and her book deserves to be read and discussed widely.

The initial aim of the sanctions was to force Iraq out of Kuwait after it had invaded in 1990. After a US-led UN coalition drove Iraq out of Kuwait by military force in 1991, the sanctions remained in place until the US-led invasion in 2003. According to the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, the sanctions were aimed at forcing Iraq to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction and accept monitoring of that disarmament, recognise Kuwait, and pay compensation for the costs of that invasion.

However, successive US administrations, supported by Congress, were determined to keep the sanctions in place and not recognise or reward compliance. (Grudgingly but fundamentally, Iraq did disarm and accept monitoring, and it recognised Kuwait and paid compensation.) The US approach was to use the sanctions to keep Iraq militarily weak indefinitely, or until a military coup replaced Saddam Hussein with a more pro-US leader, with both framed as the pursuit of US and global security.

The contribution of Gordon's book is to show that the US, sometimes supported by the UK, was willing to inflict any privation on the Iraqi people, no matter how extreme, to minimise any military potential, no matter how marginal, that Iraq might have had.

To illustrate with an example from my own fieldwork on the sanctions, the US blocked the purchase by Iraq of millions of dollars worth of ambulances on the grounds that they had vacuum flasks. The US view was that the vacuum flasks could be removed and used to keep biological warfare materials cool. Yet in 2002 I walked through Baghdad and saw shop windows full of vacuum flasks. If Saddam Hussein had wanted vacuum flasks, he could have got them from a local shop - he hardly needed to import ambulances to get them.

Underlying this seeming absurdity was the Americans' determination to prevent Iraq from getting anything that might allow the economy to function. The US even opposed many food and medicine imports and made humanitarian concessions only to the extent necessary to address embarrassment in the news media or to shore up political support for sanctions that were as severe as possible.

Furthermore, the US routinely went out of its way to undermine those humanitarian concessions unilaterally through its veto powers.

Through careful, nuanced analysis Gordon argues persuasively that international law as it stands is ill-equipped to recognise, never mind prosecute and punish, the horrors that were inflicted through the institutions of global governance.

Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions

By Joy Gordon

Harvard University Press 376pp, £29.95

ISBN 9780674035713

Published 28 April 2010

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