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Iraq: U.S. Considers Case For Smarter Sanctions -- Part 2

  • Charles Recknagel

The new U.S. administration of George W. Bush says it wants to be more selective about using trade bans on other countries. The mood in Washington is for fewer but smarter sanctions that directly target offending regimes. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke recently with Meghan O'Sullivan of the Brookings Institution, who has co-authored a book on rethinking sanction strategies. The second part of this two-part interview with O'Sullivan looks at what Washington's rethinking of its sanctions policy may mean for Baghdad.

Prague, 21 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The last 10 years of experience with using sanctions on other countries has convinced many in Washington that embargoes can only force states to change when certain conditions exist.

Many of those conditions were met in the largely successful sanctions applied against Yugoslavia. The sanctions were multilateral and coupled with incentives to opposition parties. The Belgrade regime was also highly vulnerable to domestic political pressure.

But few of the conditions apply to Iraq, which has been subject to international sanctions for more than 10 years without any desirable change in regime or policy.

As with Yugoslavia, the sanctions against Iraq are multilateral. Yet international support for the measures has weakened in recent years. Additionally, Iraq's opposition is in exile and Baghdad is ruled by a powerful elite which uses its security forces to eliminate any source of political pressure at home.

That makes Iraq one of the toughest test cases ever for U.S. sanctions policy. And it goes a long way toward explaining why officials are busily thinking of how to revamp the sanctions regime on Baghdad as part of a general reassessment of strategy.

The details are still being worked out, but the main ideas are gaining momentum and could well form part of new initiatives from the Bush administration in coming months.

Some of the new thinking is presented in a recent book co-authored by Meghan O'Sullivan, a policy expert at Brookings Institution in Washington, and Richard Haass, who was recently appointed as head of policy planning at the U.S. State Department.

The book, entitled "Honey and Vinegar: Incentives, Sanctions and Foreign Policy," reviews past uses of U.S. sanctions and suggests ways to make them a more efficient foreign policy tool for the future.

RFE/RL spoke with O'Sullivan recently about how the new thinking might re-shape U.S. sanctions policy toward Iraq.

O'Sullivan says a "smarter sanctions" regime would trade the existing broad ban on commercial trade with Baghdad for a renewed international commitment to assuring Baghdad does not obtain so-called "dual-use items" to help it rebuild its military capabilities.

She says smarter sanctions would target Saddam Hussein and his ruling elite more directly and personally than have trade embargoes so far.

"In the case of Iraq, what a smarter sanctions strategy might look like is one where there are fewer restrictions on things that affect the humanitarian situation of the population and there are perhaps even more restrictions on Saddam Hussein, on his inner circle, on the elites who prop up his regime. And often what these smarter sanctions entail are travel bans that are focused on particular people or particular groups, a more aggressive freezing of assets." She continues:

"In the case of Iraq, the foreign assets of the government of Iraq have been frozen pretty much worldwide at the request of the UN. However, the UN has not asked countries to seek out and really freeze the personal assets of Saddam Hussein, his family and close confidantes."

So far, UN trade sanctions have inflicted little economic pain on Iraq's ruling circle because it has engaged in widespread oil smuggling through Turkey and down the Gulf. As benchmark oil prices remain well above $25 a barrel, Britain's "Financial Times" recently reported that the Iraqi regime is earning as much as $2 billion a year from smuggling. Those earnings bypass the UN-approved oil-for-food program designed to assure Baghdad only spends its oil revenues on humanitarian goods.

O'Sullivan says one goal of a smarter sanctions regime would be to re-energize commitments by neighboring and other countries to keep Baghdad from engaging in sanctions-busting activities. The author says one way to do that might be to offer countries that are only weakly applying sanctions -- or which are actively calling for their lifting -- some new incentives to enforce them.

One of the most vocal countries demanding the ending of sanctions on Iraq has been Russia. It has condemned the humanitarian cost of the trade embargoes. And it is reported to be eager for its oil companies to get back into Iraq to recoup huge debts Baghdad still owes Moscow for Soviet-era arms purchases.

O'Sullivan says the longer the sanctions on Iraq drag on, the more Russia and other countries in similar positions will become restive. That suggests a need for smarter sanctions which would induce such countries to be patient in exchange for doing at least some business with Iraq in the meantime. O'Sullivan says:

"A lot of countries who agreed to the sanctions on Iraq more than 10 years ago had no idea they would last this long. And many of these countries, Russian being one of them, are owed substantial debt by Iraq and are eager to start reclaiming the debt, are eager to get in there and start acting on some lucrative investments that they've had pending the lifting of sanctions for many, many years."

She continues:

"The idea of letting some oil companies go in, do some investment under certain restrictions that would ensure that resources or foreign exchange do not go exactly to the regime, that is one way of easing some of the pressures on Russia for pushing for a full lifting of the sanctions."

It remains to be tested how much any new sanctions regime offering inducements for enforcement might still be vulnerable to sanctions-busting. But a growing number of policy-makers in the U.S. and Britain appear to be willing to give such ideas a try.

British and U.S. officials are due to discuss ideas for easing sanctions when U.S. President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair meet this weekend near Washington. The U.S. and Britain continue to insist sanctions cannot fully be lifted until UN arms inspectors confirm Baghdad has no more weapons of mass destruction. Iraq banned arms monitors from the country in late 1998 after U.S. and British bombings to force Baghdad to cooperate with the inspectors.

Both countries are under strong pressure from France, Russia, and China -- as well as many Arab countries -- to ease or lift sanctions on Iraq. That pressure has only increased since U.S. and British planes unilaterally hit Iraqi air defenses around Baghdad last Friday, primarily to destroy the fiber-optic network for its air defenses reportedly being built by the Chinese.

U.S. administration officials have suggested that China's alleged aid to Iraq appears to breach UN sanctions, but have stopped short of directly accusing China of violations.

Following the strikes, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine called the bombings illegal and said Paris wants an end to the economic sanctions on Iraq.

In Moscow, the Russian State Duma is scheduled today to consider a resolution asking President Vladimir Putin to abandon Moscow's cooperation with the sanctions.

Thus the stakes for insisting any boycott be honored have been raised. The U.S. administration must now decided whether the continued isolation of Iraq is worth risking increased tension with China, France, and Russia.