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Iraq: U.S. Critics Challenge U.N. Trade Sanctions

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 17 June 1999 (RFE/RL) - An ongoing debate in the United States over the effectiveness of maintaining sanctions on Iraq has produced two critical assessments of the policy in the curent issue of the influential U.S. publication "Foreign Affairs."

One of the assessments examines the question of whether the threat from mass destruction weapons in Iraq is sufficient to justify the high tolls exacted by the sanctions on the Iraqi people. The second looks at whether sanctions on Iraq without an ongoing arms inspections regime is a sufficient means of containing Iraqi weapons programs. Both argue for the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton to reconsider its Iraqi policy and are likely to be widely read by the Washington policy establishment.

Iraq has been under UN trade sanctions since 1990 following Baghdad's invasion of Kuwait, with their lifting tied to arms inspectors declaring that Iraq has no more weapons of mass destruction. Washington maintains that the sanctions must remain in place to enforce Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions. It also credits the sanctions with significantly weakening Iraq's military threat to neighboring states and with helping to prevent Baghdad from acquiring parts and materials to rebuild weapons of mass destruction which have been destroyed in arms inspections so far.

But Washington's sanctions policy has its domestic critics, among them John Mueller, author of the first article in Foreign Affairs. Mueller is a professor of political science at the University of Rochester in the northeastern state of New York. He says that the economic sanctions in Iraq have lasted so long that they have unintentionally evolved from being a tool for preventing the development of weapons of mass destruction into just such a weapon themselves.

Our correspondent contacted Mueller by phone recently to ask him to explain his thesis. John Mueller:

"In many respects, the idea [of sanctions] is to keep Saddam Hussein from getting weapons of mass destruction, that is one of the major reasons for these sanctions. But the problem is that in trying to keep him from getting weapons of mass destruction, what has happened is that more people have been killed because of the sanctions than have been killed by all weapons of mass destruction in history."

Estimates for how many people have been killed due to privations brought on by sanctions on Iraq vary widely and are complicated by difficulty of establishing direct causes, for example, between shortages of food and medicine and the many different forms of child and adult mortality. But as one measure, UNICEF estimates that 420,000 Iraqi children under the age of five have died due to sanctions-related causes from 1991 to 1998.

By contrast, Mueller estimates that the number of people killed by weapons of mass destruction throughout history is less than 400,000. John Mueller:

"The number of people who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki [in Japan near the end of World War Two] is somewhat over 100,000, possibly 200,000. The number of people who died from chemical weapons in World War One, where they were used quite extensively, is well under 100,000. The number of people who have died from other uses of chemical weapons is probably a few tens of thousands and the number of people who who have died from biological weapons and from missiles is probably also of that order of magnitude."

Mueller's count does not include the use of chemical gas by the Nazis during World War Two to murder millions of Europe's Jews in death camps.

The author says that Iraq has been particularly vulnerable to the destructive potential of economic sanctions because of three factors. First, so much of its economy is dependent on the export of oil. Second, much of Iraq's infrastructure was destroyed during the Gulf War. And third, the government of Saddam Hussein is more interested in maximizing the nations suffering for propaganda purposes than in relieving it.

Mueller concludes that the high human cost of the sanctions should convince the United States to move from broad trade sanctions to focusing on minimizing Iraq's ability to import goods that could directly contribute to its rearmament. He says such an arrangement would not entirely prevent Iraq from regaining military power but would constrain Baghdad at less cost to Iraqi civilians.

In the second article in Foreign Affairs, Gregory Gause, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, in the northeastern state of Vermont, urges Washington to use relief from the sanctions as a bargaining chip for returning arms inspectors to Iraq. He says that the economic sanctions have neither weakened Saddam Hussein's hold on power nor prevented him from pursuing a weapons of mass destruction program.

Gause explained his argument in a recent phone conversation with RFE/RL.

"We can't say with any kind of certainty what kind of plans Iraq might have had that sanctions have made impossible for Iraq to achieve. However, we certainly know that despite the economic sanctions on Iraq, there have been continuing efforts to develop Iraqi programs, UNSCOM has documented this. So we know that sanctions have not ended Iraq's desire to develop a weapons of mass destruction capability or their ability to pursue those goals."

Gause says that in contrast to what he calls the insignificant impact of sanctions on weapons programs, the work of arms inspectors has been instrumental in containing Iraqi capabilities until Baghdad banned them from the country at the start of this year. He writes that since 1991, the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) has demolished 48 Scud missiles, 40,000 chemical bombs and shells in various stages of production and the entire Al-Hakim biological weapons production facility. Most importantly, he says, the presence of the weapons inspectors had diverted Iraqi resources from developing more weapons of mass destruction to hiding what they already have. Gregory Gause:

"Having UNSCOM there diverting Iraqi energies from those efforts, monitoring those efforts, attempting to frustrate those efforts, has been the major element in the successes that have been achieved in disarming Iraq and sanctions in and of themselves with no monitoring on the ground aren't going to be enough to do that."

Gause concludes that the current U.S. policy of containing Iraq's weapons programs and its ability to threaten the region is inadequate because it maintains economic sanctions and the threat of pre-emptive air strikes but has lost the presence of on-site arms inspectors. He says that it is better to have arms inspections without sanctions than sanctions without arms inspections and urges Washington to change course accordingly.