Smart Sanctions, Dumb Politics

By Robert Jensen

with Rahul Mahajan

Published in · July, 2001

When politicians feel compelled to label a policy “smart,” there’s a good chance it isn’t. Such is the case with the proposal for “smart sanctions” on Iraq.

In July the U.N. Security Council extended the existing oil-for-food program in Iraq for another 150 days, which postponed the fight over the smart-sanctions plan proposed by the British and United States. The threat of a Russian veto stopped the smart-sanctions proposal this time, but in the coming months, it’s crucial for the American people to pressure the Bush administration to abandon this latest ruse and allow economic sanctions to be lifted.

The problem with smart sanctions is that they likely will have the same effect on the Iraqi people as smart bombs did during the Gulf War. No matter whether the weapons are dumb or smart, the targets – the Iraqi people – will continue to die.

The economic embargo, allegedly placed on Iraq to force compliance with U.N. resolutions about weapons of mass destruction, have killed more than 1 million civilians over the past decade, according to United Nation’s figures. Most of the world wants to lift the cruel siege, but the United States insists on keeping the screws on the Iraqi people.

The latest turn of the screw is the U.K./U.S. proposal for “new-and-improved” sanctions, which Bush administration officials disingenuously suggest will alleviate the suffering of ordinary Iraqis. But instead of allowing Iraq to recover from the one-two punch of war and siege that have devastated the economy, the plan would keep the country subjugated indefinitely under a kind of U.N. trusteeship.

Under the current system, all imports are prohibited unless specifically approved by the U.N. Sanctions Committee. The proposal calls for automatic approval of imports except for a long listed of banned or suspect items that includes almost all computer and telecommunications equipment, as well as other necessary civilian items which may have potential military uses.

This likely will allow more goods in, but the shortage of food, medicine and other goods is only part of the problem. The plan will not stimulate the local economy or allow the foreign investment needed to reconstruct Iraq’s industrial base. More food in the country is meaningless if ordinary Iraqis can’t afford it, and until the economy is rebuilt their purchasing power will not increase.

Smart sanctions have the same motivation as the 1991 Gulf War and the dumb sanctions of the past decade – not primarily to contain Iraqi military aggression (even Dick Cheney has admitted that Iraq poses no substantial military threat to its neighbors) but to maintain control over the Middle East. Keeping Iraq a pariah state provides an excuse for a permanent land-based U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries.

But recent developments are starting to undermine U.S. control. The shelving of the smart-sanctions plan, despite tremendous diplomatic pressure from the United States (including an arrangement in which the United States released $80 million in “holds” on Chinese contracts with Iraq in return for Chinese cooperation), signals a changing landscape. France and Russia have long bristled at U.S. policy, and now Russia has put forth its own plan that could lead to the total suspension of sanctions. Iraq’s traditional trading partners are tired of bearing the economic costs of the sanctions regime, and the resurgence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also has played a part, forcing the elites who rule the Arab world to take stronger stances against the U.S.-dominated status quo in the region.

The new U.K./U.S. proposal is not the result of humanitarian concerns, but an attempt by the Bush administration to shore up U.S. power in the face of these challenges. Serious concerns about peace and democracy in the region suggest another path.

Iraq needs to be able to resume normal economic, political and social life. The current system that sends Iraqi oil proceeds to a U.N.-administered account – a feature retained in the new proposal – has meant a collapse of the local economy; the Iraqi government is not even allowed to use the money to buy local goods and services.

The sanctions have made it impossible to maintain anything beyond minimal educational, health, and social services. Families are at the mercy of unscrupulous profiteers. Women, who bear the brunt of the costs in enforced impoverishment, have been disempowered. Iraq is the only country in the world where literacy decreased in the past 10 years. There has been an explosion in crime that would have been unthinkable before. Iraqis have changed from a generally pro-Western orientation to a violently anti-Western one.

The only way to change this is to put real control of Iraq back in Iraqi hands. This will make the government and Saddam Hussein more accountable to the people for economic policy, and not allow it to blame the West for problems.

Iraq won’t democratize tomorrow if it is freed today, but continuing the sanctions regime will only continue to delay that process.