Few people now remember that for many months after the First World War ended in November 1918 the blockade of Germany, where the population was already on the edge of starvation, was maintained with full rigour. By the following spring, the German authorities were projecting a 50 per cent increase in the infant mortality rate. In a later memoir, John Maynard Keynes attributed the prolongation of civilian punishment
to a cause inherent in bureaucracy. The blockade had become by that time a very perfect instrument. It had taken four years to create and was Whitehall’s finest achievement; it had evoked the qualities of the English at their subtlest. Its authors had grown to love it for its own sake; it included some recent improvements, which would be wasted if it came to an end; it was very complicated, and a vast organisation had established a vested interest. The experts reported, therefore, that it was our one instrument for imposing our peace terms on Germany, and that once suspended it could hardly be reimposed.
In the event, the ban on food imports was lifted (for fear of promoting Bolshevism) before Germany accepted the punitive terms of the Versailles treaty, but blockades have retained their popularity as a weapon deployed by strong powers against the weak. In most instances they have been ineffective in achieving their stated purpose, the notable exception being the sanctions reluctantly levied by Western governments in response to popular pressure against the South African apartheid regime. More often they constitute an exercise in vindictiveness, as with the US embargo on Vietnam and Cambodia after the Indochina war, or Israel’s blockade of Gaza with the expressed intention of ‘putting the population on a diet’.
The multiple disasters inflicted on Iraq since the 2003 Anglo-American invasion have tended to overshadow the lethally effective ‘invisible war’ waged against Iraqi civilians between August 1990 and May 2003 with the full authority of the United Nations and the tireless attention of the US and British governments. As an example of carefully crafted callousness this story offers a close parallel to Britain’s German exercise. In both cases, sanctions were retained after their original purpose – the military defeat of the blockaded nation – had been achieved, and in both cases they targeted civilians while leaving their rulers relatively unscathed. Those implementing the blockades argued vehemently that their suspension would mean a reversal of the victory on the battlefield and the defeated power’s return to its bellicose ways.
Even at the time, the sanctions against Iraq drew only sporadic public comment, and even less attention was paid to the bureaucratic manoeuvres in Washington, always with the dutiful assistance of London, which ensured the deaths of half a million children, among other consequences. In her excellent book Invisible War: the United States and the Iraq Sanctions, Joy Gordon charts these in horrifying detail, while providing a rigorous examination of the alibis and excuses given by sanctioneers at the time and since: the suffering was entirely due to Saddam Hussein’s obduracy; supplies of food and medicine were available but withheld by the regime in the interests of propaganda; the Oil For Food programme was corrupt and enabled Saddam to evade the impact of sanctions, and so on.
The legal foundation for the campaign rested on Security Council Resolution 661, passed in August 1990 shortly after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. This prohibited all UN member states from trading with Iraq: the ban crucially included all oil purchases. Leaving nothing to chance, the US proffered douceurs of economic aid prior to the vote to impoverished countries such as Ethiopia and Zaire, which were then serving as temporary members of the Security Council. After voting against the resolution, the Yemeni ambassador to the UN was tersely informed: ‘That will be the most expensive “no” vote you ever cast.’ Three days later the US cancelled its entire aid programme to his country.
Ironically, Iraqi sanctions were popular at first among the liberal-minded because they appeared to offer an alternative to war. As the Bush administration’s determination to go to war became clearer, allowing sanctions ‘time to work’ became a rallying cry for the peace party. After all, economic sanctions had brought the apartheid regime to its knees without bloodshed or noticeable suffering among the population: why not use them against Saddam Hussein? Less well publicised were the severe US sanctions against Cambodia, motivated by little other than spite over the regime’s defeat of the Khmer Rouge with Vietnamese help. Coincidentally, these were being phased out in 1990 after embarrassing revelations of continuing covert American support for the Khmer Rouge.
The war, when it came, was directed as much against Iraq’s economy as against its army in Kuwait. Key features of the bombing campaign were designed – as its principal planner, Colonel John Warden of the US air force, explained to me afterwards – to destroy the ‘critical nodes’ that enabled Iraq to function as a modern industrial society. The air force had dreamed of being able to do this sort of thing since before the Second World War, and Warden thought the introduction of precision-guided ‘smart bombs’ now made it a practical proposition. Iraq’s electrical power plants, telecommunications centres, oil refineries, sewage plants and other key infrastructure were destroyed or badly damaged. Warden, I recall, was piqued that bombing in addition to his original scheme had obscured the impact of his surgical assault on the pillars supporting modern Iraqi society.
Astonishingly, much of the damage was repaired within a year of the war’s end following a national campaign billed as ‘the counter-attack’. I had visited al-Dora power station on the edge of Baghdad in July 1991 and found a heap of twisted metal. Seven months later, I found half of the station functioning again. The control room, totally demolished by allied bombs, had been re-created, complete with the pastel colour scheme favoured by its original Italian designers. Looking closely at the control panel dials I could see that the numbers had been painstakingly painted on with a thin brush. If this reconstruction programme had been able to make use of the billions of dollars that had once poured in from oil sales, Iraq could soon have returned to its prewar condition. But the counter-attack was fought with makeshift repairs and cannibalised spare parts. As the blockade persisted, the deterioration of the infrastructure was unremitting.
The first intimation that the blockade would continue even though Iraq had been evicted from Kuwait came in an offhand remark by Bush at a press briefing on 16 April 1991. There would be no normal relations with Iraq, he said, until ‘Saddam Hussein is out of there’: ‘We will continue the economic sanctions.’ Officially, the US was on record as pledging that sanctions would be lifted once Kuwait had been compensated for the damage wrought during six months of occupation and once it was confirmed that Iraq no longer possessed ‘weapons of mass destruction’ or the capacity to make them. A special UN inspection organisation, Unscom, was created, headed by the Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus, a veteran of arms control negotiations. But in case anyone had missed the point of Bush’s statement, his deputy national security adviser, Robert Gates (now Obama’s secretary of defence), spelled it out a few weeks later: ‘Saddam is discredited and cannot be redeemed. His leadership will never be accepted by the world community. Therefore,’ Gates continued, ‘Iraqis will pay the price while he remains in power. All possible sanctions will be maintained until he is gone.’
Despite this explicit confirmation that the official justification for sanctions was irrelevant, Saddam’s supposed refusal to turn over his deadly arsenal would be brandished by the sanctioneers whenever the price being paid by Iraqis attracted attention from the outside world. And although Bush and Gates claimed that Saddam, not his weapons, was the real object of the sanctions, I was assured at the time by officials at CIA headquarters in Langley that an overthrow of the dictator by a population rendered desperate by sanctions was ‘the least likely alternative’. The impoverishment of Iraq – not to mention the exclusion of its oil from the global market to the benefit of oil prices – was not a means to an end: it was the end.
Visiting Iraq in that first summer of postwar sanctions I found a population stunned by the disaster that was reducing them to a Third World standard of living. Baghdad auction houses were filled with the heirlooms and furniture of the middle classes, hawked in a desperate effort to stay ahead of inflation. In the upper-middle-class enclave of Mansour, I watched as a frantic crowd of housewives rushed to collect food supplies distributed by the American charity Catholic Relief Services. Doctors, most of them trained in Britain, displayed their empty dispensaries. Everywhere, people asked when sanctions would be lifted, assuming that it could only be a matter of months at the most (a belief initially shared by Saddam). The notion that they would still be in force a decade later was unimaginable.
The doctors should not have had anything to worry about. Resolution 661 prohibited the sale or supply of any goods to Iraq (or to Kuwait while it was under Iraqi control) with the explicit exception of ‘supplies intended strictly for medical purposes, and, in humanitarian circumstances, foodstuffs’. However, every single item Iraq sought to import, including food and medicine, had to be approved by the ‘661 Committee’, created for this purpose and staffed by diplomats from the 15 members of the Security Council. The committee met in secret and published scarcely any record of its proceedings. Thanks to the demise of the Soviet Union, the US now dominated the UN, using it to provide a cloak of legitimacy for its unilateral actions.
The 661 Committee’s stated purpose was to review and authorise exceptions to the sanctions, but as Gordon explains, its actual function was to deny the import of even the most innocuous items on the grounds that they might, conceivably, be used in the production of weapons of mass destruction. An ingenious provision allowed any committee member to put any item for which clearance had been requested on hold. So, while other members, even a majority, might wish to speed goods to Iraq, the US and its ever willing British partner could and did block whatever they chose on the flimsiest of excuses. As a means of reducing a formerly prosperous state to a pre-industrial condition and keeping it there, this system would have aroused the envy of the blockade bureaucrats derided by Keynes. Thus in the early 1990s the United States blocked, among other items, salt, water pipes, children’s bikes, materials used to make nappies, equipment to process powdered milk and fabric to make clothes. The list would later be expanded to include switches, sockets, window frames, ceramic tiles and paint. In 1991 American representatives forcefully argued against permitting Iraq to import powdered milk on the grounds that it did not fulfil a humanitarian need. Later, the diplomats dutifully argued that an order for child vaccines, deemed ‘suspicious’ by weapons experts in Washington, should be denied.
Throughout the period of sanctions, the United States frustrated Iraq’s attempts to import pumps needed in the plants treating water from the Tigris, which had become an open sewer thanks to the destruction of treatment plants. Chlorine, vital for treating a contaminated water supply, was banned on the grounds that it could be used as a chemical weapon. The consequences of all this were visible in paediatric wards. Every year the number of children who died before they reached their first birthday rose, from one in 30 in 1990 to one in eight seven years later. Health specialists agreed that contaminated water was responsible: children were especially susceptible to the gastroenteritis and cholera caused by dirty water.
If the aim of such a comprehensive embargo had indeed been the dictator’s overthrow, its perpetrators might have pondered the fact that it was having the opposite effect. Saddam, whose invasion of Kuwait had led to the disaster, was now able to point to the outside powers as the source of Iraqis’ suffering. As most people’s savings and income dwindled away in the face of raging inflation and widespread unemployment, they became ever more dependent on the rations, however meagre, distributed through Saddam’s efficient government apparatus. Because medicine was in short supply and hospitals were deteriorating, Iraqis came to believe that almost any disease might be curable were it not for sanctions. In the countryside, villagers often kept dusty X-rays in case sanctions ended one day and they could find a cure.
Most of the time, those overseeing the blockade were able to go about their task without public reproach. Every so often a press report from Baghdad would highlight the immense slow-motion disaster in Iraq, but for the most part the conscience of the world, and especially that of the American public, remained untroubled. Administration officials reassured themselves that any hardship was entirely the fault of Saddam, and that in any case reports of civilian suffering were deliberately exaggerated by the Iraqi regime. As one US official with a key role in the Unscom weapons inspections said to me in all sincerity at the time: ‘Those people who report all those dying babies are very carefully steered to certain hospitals by the government.’ In spite of reams of child mortality statistics collected by various reputable outside parties, such as the World Health Organisation, it was impossible to convince him otherwise.
Very occasionally, a ray of truth would shine through. In 1996, the 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl interviewed Madeleine Albright, then US Ambassador to the UN. Albright maintained that sanctions had proved their value because Saddam had made some admissions about his weapons programmes and had recognised the independence of Kuwait (he did this in 1991, right after the war). Asked whether this was worth the death of half a million children, Albright replied: ‘We think the price is worth it.’ Years later, as Gordon observes, Albright was still ‘trying to explain her way out of her failure to respond more effectively to what she described as “our public relations problem”’. Her attempts to justify the policy were echoed by other sanctioneers, such as the State Department official quoted by Gordon who maintained that ‘the US is conducting a public good which it has done a poor job of selling to other countries.’
In the first year of sanctions the UN offered to allow Iraq to sell a limited amount of oil under strict conditions. Saddam turned this down on the grounds that it infringed on Iraq’s sovereignty, but five years later he accepted an improved offer which allowed Iraq to sell its oil and use the proceeds, under UN supervision, to buy food and some other necessities. Under the terms of the programme, much of the money was immediately siphoned off to settle what critics called Kuwait’s ‘implausibly high’ claims for compensation for damage from the 1990 invasion and to pay for the Unscom inspections and other UN administrative costs in Iraq. Although the arrangement did permit some improvement in living standards, there was no fundamental change: the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan reported in November 1997 that despite the programme, 31 per cent of children under five still suffered from malnutrition, supplies of safe water and medicine were ‘grossly inadequate’ and the health infrastructure suffered from ‘exceptionally serious deterioration’.
It was possible for the Iraqis to wring some pecuniary advantage from the Oil for Food programme by extracting kickbacks from the oil traders whom it favoured with allocations, as well as from companies, such as wheat traders, from which it bought supplies. In 2004, as Iraq disintegrated, the ‘Oil for Food scandal’ was ballyhooed in the US press as ‘the largest rip-off in history’. Congress, which had maintained a near total silence during the years of sanctions, now erupted with denunciations of the fallen dictator’s fraud and deception, which, with alleged UN complicity, had supposedly been the direct cause of so many deaths.
Gordon puts all this in context. ‘Under the Oil for Food programme, the Iraqi government skimmed about 10 per cent from import contracts and for a brief time received illicit payments from oil sales. The two combined amounted to about $2 billion . . . By contrast, in 14 months of occupation, the US-led occupation authority depleted $18 billion in funds’ – money earned from the sale of oil, most of which disappeared with little or no accounting and no discernible return to the Iraqi people. Saddam may have lavished millions on marble palaces (largely jerry-built, as their subsequent US military occupants discovered) but his greed paled in comparison to that of his successors.
The economic strangulation of Iraq was justified on the basis of Saddam’s supposed possession of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Year after year, UN inspectors combed Iraq in search of evidence that these WMD existed. But after 1991, the first year of inspections, when the infrastructure of Iraq’s nuclear weapons programme was detected and destroyed, along with missiles and an extensive arsenal of chemical weapons, nothing more was ever found. Given Saddam’s record of denying the existence of his nuclear project (his chemical arsenal was well known; he had used it extensively in the Iran-Iraq war, with US approval) the inspectors had strong grounds for suspicion, at least until August 1995. That was when Hussein Kamel, Saddam’s son-in-law and the former overseer of his weapons programmes, suddenly defected to Jordan, where he was debriefed by the CIA, MI6 and Unscom. In those interviews he made it perfectly clear that the entire stock of WMD had been destroyed in 1991, a confession that his interlocutors, including the UN inspectors, took great pains to conceal from the outside world.
Nevertheless, by early 1997 Rolf Ekeus had concluded, as he told me many years later, that he must report to the Security Council that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and was therefore in compliance with the Council’s resolutions, barring a few points. He felt bound to recommend that the sanctions should be lifted. Reports of his intentions threw the Clinton administration into a panic. The end of sanctions would lay Clinton open to Republican attacks for letting Saddam off the hook. The problem was solved, Ekeus explained to me, by getting Madeleine Albright, newly installed as secretary of state, to declare in a public address on 26 March 1997 that ‘we do not agree with the nations who argue that, if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted.’ The predictable result was that Saddam saw little further point in co-operating with the inspectors. This provoked an escalating series of confrontations between the Unscom team and Iraqi security officials, ending in the expulsion of the inspectors, claims that Saddam was ‘refusing to disarm’, and, ultimately, war.
Denis Halliday, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq who resigned in 1998 in protest at what he called the ‘genocidal’ sanctions regime, described at that time its more insidious effects on Iraqi society. An entire generation of young people had grown up in isolation from the outside world. He compared them, ominously, to the orphans of the Russian war in Afghanistan who later formed the Taliban. ‘What should be of concern is the possibility at least of more fundamentalist Islamic thinking developing,’ Halliday warned. ‘It is not well understood as a possible spin-off of the sanctions regime. We are pushing people to take extreme positions.’ This was the society US and British armies confronted in 2003: impoverished, extremist and angry. As they count the losses they have sustained from roadside bombs and suicide attacks, the West should think carefully before once again deploying the ‘perfect instrument’ of a blockade.
ANDREW COCKBURN is the co-producer of the 2009 documentary American Casino. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared in the London Review of Books.