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Economic sanctions in Iraq killed an estimated 350,000 Iraqis. (Photo: Adrian Dennis/EPA)

Economic sanctions in Iraq killed an estimated 350,000 Iraqis. (Photo: Adrian Dennis/EPA)

Killing Them Softly With Sanctions

Economic sanctions killed more Iraqis than Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.

Tom Gallagher

Dig deep into the June issue of National Geographic magazine and you might just find something that will cast a major aspect of American foreign policy—our economic sanctions regimes—in a new light. The issue’s cover story, "The Last Voices of World War II," includes a graphic showing the death tolls of the various nations in that war’s European and Pacific Theaters. Unfold that graphic and you’ll find an even more interesting one within—"Peaks of Brutality," which displays the "100 deadliest events of the past 2,500 years." World War II’s 66 million deaths (an estimate, as all the numbers are) lead the list. The events are not limited to wars, so in second place we find Genghis Khan, deemed responsible for the death of 40 million—over 10 percent of the 13th century world population. But the most interesting and relevant listings are found down at the bottom—"Saddam Hussein" in 100th place and "Sanctions against Iraq" in 95th.

You read that right. By this list’s reckoning, the 1979-2003 reign of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein constituted the 100th deadliest event in world history, responsible for an estimated 300,000 deaths. It was surpassed in deadliness, however—and in a considerably shorter time period (1990-2003)—by the economic sanctions which killed an estimated 350,000 Iraqis following their country’s invasion of Kuwait. In other words, in the matter of Saddam Hussein, the supposed cure proved deadlier than the disease.

To say that the American public has exhibited less concern over the Iraqis killed by sanctions than over those whose deaths were attributable to Hussein himself is a serious understatement.

To say that the American public has exhibited less concern over the Iraqis killed by sanctions than over those whose deaths were attributable to Hussein himself is a serious understatement. But then, with mainline journalism being ever-responsive to the D.C. propaganda machine, how many are actually aware of these numbers? Really, the only time the matter of the sanctions’ deadliness made a ripple on the American political scene was in reaction to then-UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright’s response to a 1996 60 Minutes question about sanctions killing Iraqi children: “I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it.”

This profoundly cynical response was clearly not enough to harm her career, though. Following a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing that she opened by stating her determination to keep the sanctions in place, the Senate confirmed her appointment as Bill Clinton’s secretary of state—by a 99-0 vote. (In a subsequent memoir, Albright expressed regret for her wording, but not the intent behind it.)

Moving on to today’s pandemic enveloped world, where the U.S. currently imposes economic sanctions on Venezuela, Iran and 37 other countries, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has called for “the waiving of sanctions imposed on countries to ensure access to food, essential health supplies, and COVID-19 medical support.” But while a few of the more humane members of Congress have publicly espoused that view, official Washington has by and large remained inert, with the Trump Administration actually ratcheting up its sanctions against Venezuela in the midst of the crisis.
Of course, the fact that our sanctions exacerbate the effects of the same health disaster we currently confront at home is precisely the reason to suspend them, if not call them off entirely. But fortunately for the sanctions advocates, and unfortunately for their victims, sanctions sound so civilized. In many cases, the dividing line within the overall bipartisan Washington foreign policy consensus runs between the “hawks” who want to bomb a particular country and the “doves” who only want to impose economic sanctions.

That’s just what they’re designed to do—make life so miserable that if their government won’t change the policies objectionable to the sanctioners, the sanctioned nation’s people will rise up, overthrow their government, and replace it with one that the sanction-imposing nations find acceptable.

The truth is, as the Iraq example shows, sanctions kill. In regard to the current situation, in February, 2019, former United Nations special rapporteur to Venezuela Alfred de Zayas wrote that “the financial blockade and the sanctions have demonstrably caused hundreds of deaths directly related to the scarcity of food and medicines resulting from the blockade.” The conclusions of an April, 2019 Center for Economic and Policy Research study were considerably more drastic, estimating the sanctions to have caused the death of 40,000 Venezuelans in 2017 and 2018. And that’s just what they’re designed to do—make life so miserable that if their government won’t change the policies objectionable to the sanctioners, the sanctioned nation’s people will rise up, overthrow their government, and replace it with one that the sanction-imposing nations find acceptable. Or, in the words of de Zayas, "It is all too obvious that the intention of the sanctions has been to asphyxiate the Venezuelan economy in the expectation that the Venezuelan people or the Venezuelan military will topple the Maduro government."

So they have proven deadly, one of their more insidious aspects being their ability to disproportionately affect the most vulnerable—the youngest, the oldest, the sickest, who suffer first and most from shortages of food and medical care. They have also proven effective back home in the U.S., so far as garnering media coverage that faults the Venezuelan government for its inability to deal with its ever mounting economic and health crises, while generally saying little if anything about the fact that the Venezuelan government’s failures represent success for our government’s policies.

What sanctions have not proven to be, however, is effective at their underlying goal of regime change. Saddam Hussein was ultimately overthrown—after 13 years of sanctions—only when the U.S. Government concocted a fraudulent rationale to actually invade the country. (And we know how well that has all turned out for the Iraqi people.)

Having so recently been party to one of the 100 deadliest events in human history, we might again cite George Santayana’s observation that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Unfortunately, it appears to be a pillar of American foreign policy to do just that.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher

Tom Gallagher is a former Massachusetts State Representative and the author of 'The Primary Route: How the 99% Take On the Military Industrial Complex.' He lives in San Francisco.

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