Let us declare at the outset: Saddam Hussein is a despicable despot, not to mention a polecat and a poltroon. A mid-January commentary from the official Saudi news agency called him the "Baghdad tyrant" and urged an Iraqi revolution to overthrow him because he has killed and tortured thousands of his own people. About the same time, the Egyptian foreign minister said Saddam is "shaming the entire Arab region through his politics."
Clearly, Saddam, who doesn't love his neighbors, is not loved by them. Nevertheless, just one day after they called Saddam the "Baghdad tyrant," the Saudis led the foreign ministers of six Persian Gulf states in a statement of cautious support for lifting the embargo on Iraq, except for goods that can be used for military purposes. (True to form, Saddam immediately rejected the overture because it was the Saudis who suggested it.)
Having agreed that Saddam is a tyrant, at CT we find ourselves sharing the Arab States' compassion toward the Iraqi people. They continue to suffer a slow and agonizing death—of their country, their culture, their children, and their future—eight years after the end of the Gulf War. But although the Clinton administration drew our attention to Iraq with a brief December display of raw power—designed, many say, to distract us from the Commander in Chief's impeachment hearings—we are likely to see the fickle news media ignore the ongoing suffering. When the bombing stops, the Iraqi people are invisible once more.
A strategy that misfires
Because of the United Nations sanctions imposed on Saddam, and held in place at U.S. insistence, sewage-treatment facilities and water-treatment plants are broken and cannot be repaired, chlorine for water purification is banned, and thus the nation's drinking water is contaminated. Diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, and malaria—once nearly eradicated in Iraq—are once again spreading through the population. Medicines, many of them inexpensive and plentiful in the West, are rare. There is an outbreak of childhood leukemia, a disease that has a 75 percent survival rate in the U.S. and UK, but that has only a 10 percent survival rate in Basra, largely because needed medications are impossible to obtain. Ambulances go unrepaired for lack of spare parts. Hospitals have no sheets, no disinfectants, little refrigeration for drugs. Medical records are written on scarce scraps of paper and go astray.
Observer teams from the West tell stories of personal tragedy and pain: a baby born with hypoglycemia dies because a simple hypertonic solution of glucose, salt, and water is unavailable; a mother loses all five of her children to gastroenteritis; a woman undergoes a hysterectomy without anesthesia.
As a direct result of the sanctions, unicef estimates, 5,000 to 6,000 children die each month from preventable malnutrition or disease. Over the course of eight years, that is more than half a million children above and beyond so-called normal mortality rates. Add the deaths of the chronically ill, the elderly, and other vulnerable people due to the deprivations caused by the sanctions, and the total is somewhere around a million and a half. In addition to death, the sanctions have brought an enormous increase in the rate of birth defects. They have also brought grinding poverty and the presence of street children to Iraqi cities, a phenomenon largely unknown in Baghdad and Basra before 1990.
The economic sanctions, which the un imposed in August 1990 in response to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, have been applied far beyond what is necessary to curtail the tyrant's military strength. Finally, in 1996 an exception was made that allowed Iraq to sell a limited amount of oil in exchange for food purchases and reparations payments to Kuwait. That food consistently reached the civilian population it was aimed for, says Ashraf Bayoumi, who headed the World Food Programme Observation Unit until last May. He carefully tracked food shipments and saw that they reached hungry people. Recent claims by the Blair and Clinton governments that oil-for-food was really oil-for-tanks were sheer lies, he says. Nevertheless, the food made available through the program was woefully inadequate.
Why sanctions aren't working
Ironically, the mainline churches argued for the sanctions in 1990 as a way of putting pressure on Iraq, while avoiding armed conflict. Now those churches are among the most vocal activists calling for the lifting, "reshaping," or "thorough review" of the sanctions, hoping that the embargo will be lifted on all but military goods. What have they and other Christians discovered is wrong with the sanctions?
First, the sanctions don't work morally. When broadly and harshly imposed, sanctions are actually "weapons of mass destruction" (as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark has said). They destroy civilian and military populations indiscriminately, just as do land mines and germ warfare. These sanctions are engines of war that violate several criteria of the just-war tradition: they indiscriminately hurt civilians, they have a low likelihood of success, and in this case, they are not proportional to the offense committed.
Second, they don't work politically—if America's goal is to foster a revolution against Saddam and create an Iraqi regime sympathetic to U.S. goals. The sanctions have instead destroyed the once-prosperous Iraqi middle class, the only social group that would have had the economic and political clout to pull off a coup. Many in the middle class have emigrated, taking their professional knowledge and social savvy with them. This leaves poverty-stricken masses lacking in sophistication and in political clout. (Whereas once the average Iraqi income was $225 to $300 per month, it is today less than $10.)
This leads to a third way the sanctions don't work: they don't work religiously. Rather than fostering a moderate and enlightened Islam, they prepare the ground for what many call "militant fundamentalism." Indeed, Dennis Halliday, former coordinator of the oil-for-food program, told the bbc that the coming generation of Iraqis, with their hatred for the West and their lack of education (the sanctions have destroyed the school system), are the perfect raw material for a parallel movement to the Afghan Taliban. Young Iraqis are "intolerant of what they consider their leaders' excessive moderation," says Halliday.
Fourth, the sanctions punish the Iraqi people, not their leaders. Ashraf Bayoumi sharply compares the deaths resulting from the sanctions to "two or three Hiroshimas" and the portending social chaos to "twenty Lebanons." Writes the Chicago Tribune's Ray Moseley, "Western officials may say that all Hussein has to do, if he wants sanctions lifted, is to abide by un resolutions. That, according to critics of the sanctions policy, avoids the more important issue of who suffers when he does not."
Our Iraqi brothers and sisters
Western Christians should not forget that there is a small, but significant Christian minority in Iraq, perhaps about 5 percent. Indeed, Iraq's foreign minister is a Christian. One Christian observation team returned from Iraq saying that "the witness and ministry of the small Christian community … have been significantly reduced … and churches in the country feel isolated from and abandoned by the larger Christian community." Whenever Western "Christian" governments misbehave or abuse their power, the church in Islamic countries is embarrassed and its witness is impaired.
Fortunately, some Western Christians have been supportive of their Iraqi brothers and sisters. Christian organizations such as Venture Middle East have been involved in relief trips carrying food and medicines to those in deepest need. (This can be done legally, says VME's Leonard Rodgers, by working with local and regional councils of churches.) In addition, churches, such as First Presbyterian Church of Houston, have been partnering with Iraqi congregations to reduce their sense of isolation as well as their suffering.
In the international community, the United States is increasingly isolated in its insistence on keeping the broad sanctions in place. Russia, France, China, Brazil, Holland, and other members of the un Security Council have all suggested that the sanctions be eased while arms inspections continue. In this country, the administration is increasingly isolated as well; two senators and 44 representatives signed a letter last fall critical of U.S. policy and calling for the U.S. to delink economic sanctions from military sanctions. The U.S. can veto any changes proposed in the Security Council, but it would be tragic for it to continue to buck world opinion in the face of enormous human tragedy.
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