Imagine if a U.S. cruise missile were to land on a kindergarten and kill 165 children. Imagine now that it was launched knowing it would hit that kindergarten, and further, that one of these missiles was launched at a different kindergarten every day for a month. That's 5,000 children.
To kill that many children as a matter of state policy would be unspeakable. The American commander in chief would be condemned as a barbarian. And yet, that is what the economic embargo of Iraq has done: According to the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the embargo has caused 5,000 extra deaths per month among children under 5. This has gone on for nearly 10 years, killing more than half a million children. These deaths were caused not by bombs but by germs, mainly preventable water-borne diseases such as typhoid and dysentery. They were caused because the United States and its allies wrecked Iraq's water-purification plants in 1991 and because the U.S.-led embargo on Iraqi oil has prevented Iraq from rebuilding them.
Water systems were not likely to matter much in a 100-hour war, or even a six-month war. They were targeted for long-term leverage. The justification was to put pressure on Saddam Hussein. Whatever deaths resulted from the policy could be blamed on Saddam. If the policy worked quickly, one could argue it was a success. But when the policy goes on and on, causing deaths of children with no end in sight, it becomes unconscionable.
Americans like to say the economic embargo is the policy of the United Nations. But the UN's General Assembly, if given a chance, would repeal it. So would the Security Council, where the embargo is sustained only by the United States and Britain. If President Clinton decided otherwise, the embargo would end tomorrow.
Americans also keep this policy going by disingenuously misidentifying the target. Government officials speak of the squeeze on Iraq in terms of a campaign against one man. Officials do not say that we bomb the people of Iraq; we are "hitting back at Saddam Hussein." They do not say we embargo the people of Iraq; we are "putting the squeeze on Saddam Hussein." And yet, the price is not paid by Saddam Hussein, personally, but by children who die and their families.
What has been gained? The goal was to prevent Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction. American officials also hoped it might lead to the downfall of Saddam. Today, it is not clear that such weapons exist or that Saddam retains any ability to manufacture them. Within Iraq, it's likely the sanctions have strengthened, not weakened, Saddam's grip on power.
Despite all that, the United States continues to enforce an economic embargo that kills 5,000 children per month. After 10 years, it's time for Americans to take notice and name the policy for what it is: a tragic failure.
Copyright © 2000 The Seattle Times Company