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Don’t Life the Sanctions Yet!

After five years spent working to end the sanctions on Iraq, I find myself in an odd position. I’m opposed to the current U.S. plans to end the sanctions.

The new situation is fascinating. For a dozen years, every time we in the anti-sanctions movement talked about the suffering caused by the sanctions (well over 500,000 children under the age of five dead and a society in ruins), the constant refrain from the Bush administration, the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration — was that the suffering was not caused by sanctions but by the regime. Once the regime is destroyed, miraculously, the Bush administration realizes overnight that sanctions were actually harmful and that it’s necessary to remove that burden from the Iraqi people in order to provide humanitarian aid and reconstruction.

Adding to the confusion, the two countries on the Security Council previously most against continuation of the sanctions, France and Russia, did an about-face and opposed the U.S. plans. Both (especially Russia) have insisted that sanctions cannot be lifted until U.N. weapons inspectors certify that Iraq is disarmed of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This is true even though Vladimir Putin of Russia openly mocked Tony Blair about the dramatically unconfirmed claims by “coalition” members that Iraq possessed WMD that posed a threat to the world.

Did this administration, which tried to keep Iraqi infants from being vaccinated for diphtheria and limited imports of streptomycin into the country, see a blinding light on the road to Baghdad? And did other countries suddenly decide that the deaths of Iraqi children was, as Madeleine Albright put it in an interview in 1996, a price worth paying and this time merely in order to uphold a trivial legalistic argument?

Actually, it’s not so confusing. The United States has moved to consolidate control over Iraq. The talks being held by selected members of the “Iraqi opposition” under the control of the U.S. military are not intended to create an independent government, but rather one which is tightly controlled by the United States just as in Afghanistan. As in Afghanistan, the meetings are excluding entire segments of the political spectrum. They are being done with express disregard of calls across that spectrum for meetings to be held under neutral U.N. auspices rather than under those of an occupying power with clear plans for increased regional domination.

Those plans have become clear as well. The Bush administration wants to set up permanent military bases in Iraq, making it the main Middle East staging area for U.S. “force projection.” The massive political leverage given by this presence will be used as a club against Iran and Syria and also to force the Palestinians to acquiesce to the Israeli occupation through the latest “peace plan.” The administration also wants not only to open up future Iraqi exploration to foreign corporations (with U.S. and maybe British corporations presumably favored) but to privatize, at least in part, the state oil companies and their currently producing wells.

All of these things can be obtained through the U.S. military presence and the creation of what will essentially be an Iraqi puppet government. However, some problems are the kind that can’t be solved by bombs. Existing U.N. resolutions require Security Council approval for Iraqi oil sales and for disbursement of oil money to pay for other goods. Other countries may be leery of buying Iraqi oil without some clear understanding that what they’re doing is legal, so the United States cannot simply declare those resolutions void by fiat, the way it declared war on Iraq.

The draft resolution being currently circulated would give the United States very open, explicit control over Iraq’s oil industry and the money derived therefrom. Then, instead of being forced to disburse USAID funds to corporations like Bechtel that are closely tied to current and past administration figures in closed bidding processes with no foreign corporations allowed, the United States will be able to use Iraq’s money to pay off mostly American corporations. In the process, it will try to escape the legal obligation it shares with the United Kingdom: since they committed an illegal aggressive war (with no Security Council authorization) against Iraq, they are financially responsible for the reconstruction. Iraq should not have to pay for its own reconstruction, especially since for years to come its oil revenues will be barely enough to meet the basic needs of its people.

This fundamental violation of the rights of the Iraqi people is being done in the name of the immediate crisis faced. Yet the way that the sanctions work is not the way they used to. Most imports are automatically approved without any requirement for deliberation by the Sanctions Committee. Furthermore, the biggest bureaucratic delays were created by deliberate U.S. understaffing, so that there were never enough people to review all the proposed contracts (see Joy Gordon’s article “Cool War: Economic Sanctions as a Weapon of Mass Destruction, Harper’s, November 2002). Finally, all members of the Security Council have indicated willingness to cooperate in expediting the release of all goods required for immediate needs. In the long run, the sanctions must be lifted because they impose a highly inefficient foreign control of the Iraqi economy, causing the collapse of local economic activity and requiring money that should be spent internally to be spent on foreign corporations; in the short run, there is no compelling reason to lift them in the absence of a legitimate Iraqi government that has the right to make choices about how Iraq’s oil wealth is to be used for the benefit of the Iraqi people, not for U.S. corporate boondoggles and plans for military-based political domination.

France and Russia are opposing this move (France rather weakly), not because of any genuine concern about WMD, but for two reasons. First, the venal one: they don’t want to be completely shut out of any lucrative postwar contracts and certainly want to hang on to oil concession deals signed with the previous Iraqi regime. Second, a reason that activists in the United States and elsewhere should support fully: they don’t want to retroactively legitimize U.S. aggression and thus contribute further to its more and more openly imperial role in the world.

In fact, overt subordination of the United Nations to the United States is a central part of the Bush administration agenda. It has served notice that the U.N. has no role in anything “important” not in weapons inspections, in the Iraqi political process, in major reconstruction decisions, nor in peacekeeping (where a multinational “coalition of the willing” is being assembled). Instead, as George Bush said, the “vital role” of the U.N. is easily defined: “That means food. That means medicine. That means aid.” Or, as Richard Perle said even more openly, in an op-ed shortly after the war began titled “Thank God for the death of the U.N.,” “The ‘good works’ part will survive, the low-risk peacekeeping bureaucracies will remain, the chatterbox on the Hudson will continue to bleat.” No longer content with a system where nominally the U.N. is the ultimate authority but the United States dominates it by coercion and bribery, the Bush administration wants explicit recognition that the U.N. should play only the roles allowed to it by the United States.

An example from history helps to illuminate the fundamental principle regarding the sanctions. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, one of the first things it did was try to set up a puppet regime composed of Kuwaitis to rule the country as a satellite of Iraq. It would actually have withdrawn most of its army had that regime gotten any international recognition. Instead, the sanctions that were levied at U.S. insistence embargoed not only Iraq’s oil sales but Kuwait’s. Kuwaiti oil was not to be sold so that an illegitimate regime could not plunder Kuwait’s oil wealth for the benefit of the Iraqi government. Those sanctions were indefensible for reasons that don’t apply today, including the almost complete termination of food imports into Iraq (although food was technically allowed under UN Security Council Resolution 666, in practice virtually none got in). The principle, however, was sound.

Today, the United States is willing to (partially) withdraw after it installs its own puppet regime (one that will presumably have more independence than the one Iraq tried to install, but will still be subservient to U.S. dictates). It also wants to plunder Iraq’s oil wealth for its own political purposes and for the benefit of U.S. corporations. This is reason enough to keep the sanctions on until there is a legitimate Iraqi government. This can only happen if U.S. and other “coalition” forces withdraw, there is a multinational U.N. peacekeeping force with no participation from any of the aggressor nations, and the Iraqis are given a genuine chance to exercise their right to self-determination.

RAHUL MAHAJAN is a member of the Nowar Collective. His newest book, “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond” will be out in June 2003. His articles are collected at

He can be reached at



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