Friday, August 01, 2003

I finally got through the nine-screen NYTimes Magazine piece on Iraqi sanctions, which tries to answer the simple question: "Were Sanctions Right?" Every time David Rieff comes perilously close to saying, "No way, definitely not," he backs off, ever so slightly. But that's certainly the impression I came away with. Witness how sanctions became one of the police state's most effective weapons of control:

''First we got used to the idea that the government provided food,'' a young Iraqi journalism student named Aziz told me. (He preferred that I not know his last name.) ''Then we started to see the government as the provider of absolutely everything. For Saddam, it was great. The more he controlled distribution, the more effective the Iraqi police state became. After all, practically the worst thing you could do was to lose your ration card.''

In many ways, Saddam Hussein became a master at manipulating the sanctions system to his own ends. Under the rubric of the oil-for-food program, the United Nations allowed the Iraqis themselves to publish their list of humanitarian requirements and then to select the foreign companies with which it wished to do business. This provision meant that the Iraqi government was able to set up a well-orchestrated system of kickback schemes in which a contract would be signed at far more than the cost of fulfilling it, with the difference deposited secretly by the selected contractors in Iraqi government-controlled accounts all over the world. As a result, Saddam Hussein and the Baath elite got rich off the sanctions, and a great many international businessmen, notably in the Arab world, in France and in Russia, made handsome profits as well.
It's worth reading the whole thing. I'm surprised the cruelty of the sanctions were so rarely used to justify the war itself. After all, there were basically three options: Continue the sanctions as they were; loosen, drop or alter the sanctions; or go to war. The first option, in my view, would have been the most inhumane. I'm not the only one who thinks that, according to the article:

Not that every Iraqi I met preferred sanctions to war. To the contrary, some even insisted that given the choice between being subjected to open-ended sanctions and the bloody resolution of an American invasion, they would opt for the latter. ''I detest the Americans and want them to leave Iraq now, immediately,'' one Shiite notable told me. ''But they got rid of Saddam, and now they have lifted the sanctions. That's good. Otherwise, who knows how long this slow death by water torture, which the sanctions were for us, would have gone on?''
The second option -- lifting or loosening the sanctions -- might have been the best of the three, given the right carrots and sticks. But nobody, to my knowledge, ever came up with a workable fomula that would have alleviated the suffering of the Iraqis and managed to contain Saddam Hussein's military ambitions.

It would be nice if the Iraqi experience led to reconsideration of sanctions as a foreign policy tool -- in, say, Cuba, for instance. It's long been said (speculated, really) that the Castro regime would collapse at the first whiff of free trade with the United States.


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