Were Sanctions Right?" is the title of a remarkable article on July 27 in The New York Times Magazine. The subtitle is: "They saved the world from Saddam Hussein. Or they killed 500,000 innocent children. Or they did both. A postwar inquiry."
"American officials may quarrel with the numbers," the article stated, "but there is little doubt that at least several hundred thousand children who could reasonably have been expected to live died before their fifth birthdays."
Richard Garfield, a health specialist at Columbia University, is cited as an expert on these statistics. A year ago, he told us his low estimate of children's deaths was 400,000. If one extrapolates the excess death rate for Iraqi children from a 1992 New England Journal of Medicine report, there would now be more than 800,000 dead Iraqi children.
The author of the Times' article, David Rieff, expresses my own feelings very well: "The damage, according to those who fought against sanctions, was terrible, medieval. It was, in the literal sense, unconscionable, since those who died had not themselves developed weapons of mass destruction or invaded Kuwait."
There was one glaring omission -- the United States' deliberate destruction of Iraq's civilian infrastructure during the first Gulf War.
As the New England Journal of Medicine put it, "The destruction of the country's power plants had brought its entire system of water purification and distribution to a halt, leading to epidemics of cholera, typhoid fever, and gastroenteritis, particularly among children.... Although the allied bombing had caused few civilian casualties, the destruction of the infrastructure resulted in devastating long-term effects on health."
Also missing were statements by Pentagon strategists of their intention to cause just these results. In a 1991 interview with The Washington Post, one of the planners candidly admitted: "People say, 'You didn't recognize that it was going to have an effect on water or sewage.' What were we trying to do with [United Nations-approved economic] sanctions -- help out the Iraqi people? No. What we were doing with the attacks on infrastructure was to accelerate the effect of sanctions."
Why did we want to accelerate the effect of the sanctions?
Three weeks after the end of the Gulf War, The New York Times -- echoing statements of the first President Bush -- gave us a candid answer: "By making life uncomfortable for the Iraqi people, [sanctions] would eventually encourage them to remove President Saddam Hussein from power." This appeared in a front-page story covering a major United Nations report on Iraq that predicted epidemic and famine if massive life-supporting needs were not rapidly met.
Simply put, sanctions -- with epidemic and famine -- were there to force "regime change."
There's little doubt Saddam Hussein could have done more to help Iraqis. There's also little doubt that the primary causes of deaths since 1991 were unsafe water and sanctions.
The recent New York Times article also asked the question: Did sanctions save the world from Saddam Hussein?
That question is really remarkable. It is as if the 1991 Gulf War hadn't taken place. At the height of Iraq's military power, when Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction but was deterred from using them, coalition forces demolished Iraq's military and massacred Iraqi soldiers at a kill rate of 1,000 to 1. If the United States warned Iraq it would be at war with us if it invaded a neighbor -- something we emphatically did not do before Iraq invaded Kuwait (or Iran) -- what real threat could Iraq pose to its neighbors or the world?
Our fears lie not in military facts but in the demonization of Saddam Hussein.
Demonization involves a deliberate exaggeration of dangers. It entails a "selective and manipulative use of human-rights violations" (Amnesty International). Demonization could cause us to hesitate answering the article's key question: "Whether any policy, no matter how strategically sound, is worth the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children."
Let's ask a parallel question. In an informal European poll, 80 percent of the respondents said the United States was a greater threat to world peace than Iraq or North Korea. Would the idea of 500,000 American children's deaths to "contain the United States" not be utterly appalling to us? Why can't we imagine that Iraqis feel the same way about their children?
As if to spotlight the reality of U.S. sanctions policy, the Treasury Department has just brought a civil suit against a group (to which I belong) to collect $20,000 for the "crime" of taking medicines to Iraq without a U.S. license -- in short, for breaking U.S. sanctions. This is where our government is spending its energies today.
Perhaps you're ready to join us to say to our government: Enough is enough!
Bert Sacks, who lives in Seattle, has made several trips to Iraq to deliver medicines; visit www.vitw.org for an update on Voices in the Wilderness.
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