The Politics of Dead Children

Have sanctions against Iraq murdered millions?

(Page 3 of 3)

Jensen's cohorts in kick-starting the anti-sanctions movement were intifada-supporting professor Edward Said, "people's historian" Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky, a man who has rarely met a foreign policy he couldn't describe as "genocide." The four issued a joint statement in January 1999 condemning the situation in Iraq as "sanctioned mass-murder that is nearing holocaust proportions."

These four men have authored reams of hyperbolic nonsense since September 11. Isn't it reasonable to conclude that anything they and Saddam Hussein agree upon must be false?

No, actually, it's not, and therein lies the problem. Any sustained inquiry into the sanctions issue runs up against waves of propaganda and reckless disregard for the truth, and it would be all too easy to declare the issue settled after a quick dismissal of the most glaring lies. But that would be an abdication of responsibility. Many of those who support continued pressure on Saddam Hussein tend to focus on a few key counterpoints while ignoring piles of haunting in-country surveys and the damning testimony of former U.N. officials who have quit to campaign full-time against U.S. policy in Iraq. Sanctions proponents, if they are not careful, run the risk of aping the foolish debate tactics of the critics they condemn.

Take, for example, the lowered mortality rates in the northern provinces of Dahuk, Sulaymaniyah, and Erbil -- the smoking gun of the sanctions-don't-kill crowd. The New Republic claims the autonomous Kurdish area "is subject to exactly the same sanctions as the rest of the country." This is false: Under the oil-for-food regime, the north, which contains 13 percent of the Iraqi population, receives 13 percent of all oil proceeds, a portion of that in cash. Saddam's regions, with 87 percent of the population, receive 59 percent of the money (recently increased by the U.N. Security Council from 53 percent), none of it in cash. (Of the rest, 25 percent goes to a Kuwaiti compensation fund, and the rest covers U.N. expenses.)

It just isn't true that the sanctions are "exactly the same" in both parts of Iraq. And there are other factors affecting the north-south disparity: International aid agencies have been active in the areas protected by no-fly zones since 1991, and the Turkish border is said to be suitably porous for smuggling (although Saddam has been caught smuggling several times in the past decade).

The get-Saddam camp also likes to point out that sanctions haven't seemed to inflict similar grief in countries such as Libya and Yugoslavia. To which Richard Garfield, who compared the various penalized countries, has an effective rebuttal: "Embargoes with the greatest impact on the health of the general population are usually those which are multilateral and comprehensive, occur in countries with heavy import dependence, are implemented rapidly, and are accompanied by other economic and social blows to a country. Iraq shared each of these characteristics."

Those who get past the initial frustrations of researching the topic usually end up on Richard Garfield's doorstep. His 1999 report -- which included a logistic regression analysis that re-examined four previously published child mortality surveys and added bits from 75 or so other relevant studies -- picked apart the faulty methodologies of his predecessors, criticized the bogus claims of the anti-sanctions left, admitted when the data were shaky, and generally used conservative numbers. Among his many interesting findings was that every sanctions regime except the one imposed on apartheid South Africa led to limitations of food and medicine imports, even though such goods were almost always officially exempt from the embargo. "In many countries," he wrote, "the embargo-related lack of capital was more important than direct restrictions on importing medicine or food."

Garfield concluded that between August 1991 and March 1998 there were at least 106,000 excess deaths of children under 5, with a "more likely" worst-case sum of 227,000. (He recently updated the latter figure to 350,000 through this year.) Of those deaths, he estimated one-quarter were "mainly associated with the Gulf war." The chief causes, in his view, were "contaminated water, lack of high quality foods, inadequate breast feeding, poor weaning practices, and inadequate supplies in the curative health care system. This was the product of both a lack of some essential goods, and inadequate or inefficient use of existing essential goods."

Ultimately, Garfield argued, sanctions played an undeniably important role. "Even a small number of documentable excess deaths is an expression of a humanitarian disaster, and this number is not small," he concluded. "[And] excess deaths should...be seen as the tip of the iceberg among damages to occur among under five-year-olds in Iraq in the 1990s....The humanitarian disaster which has occurred in Iraq far exceeds what may be any reasonable level of acceptable damages according to the principles of discrimination and proportionality used in warfare....To the degree that economic sanctions complicate access to and utilization of essential goods, sanctions regulations should be modified immediately."

Garfield's conclusion echoes that of literally every international agency that has performed extensive studies in Iraq. In 1999 a U.N. Humanitarian Panel found that "the gravity of the humanitarian situation of the Iraqi people is indisputable and cannot be overstated." UNICEF's Carol Bellamy, at the time her landmark report was released, said, "Even if not all suffering in Iraq can be imputed to external factors, especially sanctions, the Iraqi people would not be undergoing such deprivations in the absence of the prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of war." The former U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, Denis Halliday, travels around the world calling the policy he once enforced "genocide." His replacement, Hans von Sponeck, also resigned in protest of the U.N.'s "criminal policy."

Losing the Loonies

There have been no weapons inspectors in Iraq since 1998. As a result it is exceptionally difficult to know with precision what nuclear and biological weapons Saddam actually has on hand or in development. From the beginning, economic sanctions have been tied to what foreign policy analyst Mark Phythian described in World Affairs as "the first attempt to disarm a country against its will." After September 11, the issue of an America-hating tyrant arming himself to the teeth has seemed more pressing than easing an embargo that blocks his access to money.

Yet the basic argument against all economic sanctions remains: namely, that they tend to punish civilians more than governments and to provide dictators with a gift-wrapped propaganda tool. Any visitor to Cuba can see within 24 hours the futility of slapping an embargo on a sheltered population that is otherwise inclined to detest its government and embrace its yanqui neighbors. Sanctions give anti-American enclaves, whether in Cairo or Berkeley or Peshawar, one of their few half-convincing arguments about evil U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War.

It seems awfully hard not to conclude that the embargo on Iraq has been ineffective (especially since 1998) and that it has, at the least, contributed to more than 100,000 deaths since 1990. With Bush set to go to war over Saddam's noncompliance with the military goals of the sanctions, there has never been a more urgent time to confront the issue with clarity.

That means losing the loonies on the left. Already there are signs of mounting liberal impatience with the routine smokescreens emanating from the usual anti-sanctions rabble. Slate, The Guardian, and even The Nation all published sober correctives of dead-Iraqi-baby inflation toward the end of 2001, decisively backing Richard Garfield over Robert Jensen. And if Noam Chomsky no longer leads this particular coalition of critics, maybe they're not so wrong after all.

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