The Middle East Channel

Lessons we should have learned from the Iraqi sanctions

As the U.S. drives the UN Security Council to tighten sanctions on Iran and the world's attention momentarily focuses on the Gaza blockade, decision makers could benefit from hearing an untold story about the role played by the U.S. in the almost forgotten Security Council sanctions imposed on Iraq for over a decade. Coming on the heels of the massive bombing strikes of the 1991 Gulf War, the sanctions had a catastrophic humanitarian impact, preventing Iraq from rebuilding or even maintaining its infrastructure. Electricity production, agriculture, water treatment, telecommunications, transportation, health care, and education were all crippled. A UN envoy described the situation in 1991 as "near apocalyptic." The best estimate of "excess child mortality" -- the number of children under five who died during the sanctions who would not have under Iraq's economy and policies before sanctions -- is between 670,000 and 880,000.

Very few people have been aware of exactly how the U.S. worked to maintain these sanctions over more than a decade. The Iraq sanctions regime was managed by a committee of the Security Council known as the "661 Committee." Created by Resolution 661, it mirrored the Security Council itself, containing representatives from each state on the Council. The committee met behind closed doors. For years, the minutes were not even available to the committee's own members. But in the course of my research, I obtained access to thousands of pages of the committee's documents, including their minutes and internal reports. Consequently, it was possible to document what went on, in a setting where none of the participants thought there would ever be a public record of what they said and did.

The documents reveal that the U.S. wielded extraordinary power, determining the crucial policies that would affect the entire population of Iraq. Within the closed meetings of the 661 Committee, the U.S., often acting unilaterally, determined the nature and severity of the sanctions, in the face of almost constant opposition from the majority of the Security Council, the UN's humanitarian agencies, the UN Human Rights Commission, and international NGOs. And there is no sign that the sanctions contributed to Saddam Hussein's downfall. To the contrary, in many regards they strengthened the regime. As food shortages set in, for instance, most of the population became dependent on state rations, further consolidating state control. The unemployment and impoverishment brought about not only malnourishment and disease, but crime and a deterioration of the social fabric. In the midst of the sanctions regime, one UN official observed that "the survivors will be the black marketeers and the thieves." The impact of those sanctions -- and the long-term effects of American policy -- continues to be felt today.

In principle, the sanctions should not have caused this damage. There were provisions for "humanitarian exemptions," such that Iraq or UN agencies could ask the 661 committee to permit them to import goods or equipment for humanitarian purposes.  However, because the 661 Committee operated by consensus, any member of the Security Council could deny permission. The U.S. did just that, and on a massive scale. In the early 1990s, a few other countries occasionally joined the U.S. in blocking humanitarian goods going into Iraq. After 1995, only the UK joined the U.S. in this regard, and then only rarely. Of the goods that were blocked, the U.S. acted unilaterally about 90 percent of the time, the UK was unilaterally responsible for about 5 percent of the blocked contracts, and the UK and U.S. jointly blocked the remainder.

And there were a lot of goods that were denied. As of November,1998, holds on humanitarian contracts totaled $147.5 million; by August, 1999 that figure had grown to about $500 million, by April, 2000 to $1.7 billion, by December, 2000 to $2.5 billion, by July, 2001 to $3.3 billion, and by May, 2002 to over $5 billion. So many of Iraq's contracts were blocked that, from the time the program began operating in 1996 until March, 2003, a total of only $27 billion in humanitarian goods were actually delivered to Iraq. That amounted to about $204 per person, per year for all goods; this includes food, medicine, and the reconstruction of the infrastructure, since the program began operation -- or about one-half the per capita income of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

U.S. practices went well beyond the mandate of the Security Council's resolutions, and well beyond the will of the rest of the Council members. The Security Council resolutions required the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, the goal of the United States was the elimination of Iraq's capacity to produce WMD. While the production of nuclear weapons requires a large and sophisticated production facility, the production of biological and chemical weapons, or at least some of their components, can take place in nothing more than a college chemistry lab or in manufacturing facilities for things like fertilizers and pesticides. To eliminate a nation's capacity to produce biological and chemical weapons means eliminating all science education above the secondary school level, eliminating the capacity to produce yogurt and cheese, or, as one U.S. official would have it, eliminating eggs, because egg yolks could possibly be used as a medium in which to grow viruses, which in turn could possibly be used for biological weapons.

Any industrialized nation relies continually on manufacturing processes that could possibly be converted to produce some aspect of a biological or chemical weapon. To eliminate this capacity, as opposed to the weapons themselves, would literally require reducing a nation to the most primitive possible condition and keeping it in those circumstances in perpetuity. That was not at all the policy adopted by the Security Council, which required only that Iraq be subject to partial disarmament and monitoring, but it was the policy of the United States. The U.S. positions were so extreme they conflicted even with the judgment of international weapons inspectors. At the same time, when it was politically convenient, the United States allowed goods that had long been decried as "WMD" or dual use, such as the occasion when the United States lifted its objections to China's sale of fiber-optic cables, which had a clear military use, to secure China's vote. This further undermined the credibility of the U.S. claim that its very extreme practices were grounded in a principled commitment to security and international law.

The catastrophic damage from U.S. policy came about in part because of the redundancy. The water treatment system was compromised first when the U.S. blocked equipment and chemicals for water purification; but if Iraq had somehow been able to produce or smuggle those, the water system would then have been compromised by the lack of electrical power, because electrical generators and related equipment had been bombed by the U.S., and because the replacement equipment was blocked by the United States. If Iraq had been somehow able to generate sufficient electricity, then the clean water could not have been distributed because the bombings had caused so much breakage in the water pipes, and the United States then blocked the importation of water pipes, on the grounds that they could be used for weapons of mass destruction. If Iraq had somehow been able to smuggle or manufacture water pipes, it did not have the bulldozers or cranes necessary to install them because those were blocked by the U.S. as well. The same was true in every area: agricultural production, manufacturing of basic goods, transportation, communication systems, education, and medical care. It was this terrible redundancy that ensured that nothing the Iraqi government did, that no amount of ingenuity or adaptation or targeting of resources, could have restored conditions fit to sustain human life.

It is hard to look at the current sanctions on Gaza and Iran without recalling the Iraq sanctions regime -- both the structural damage and pettiness. It seems that what the U.S. has learned from Iraq was to claim that it now employs "smart sanctions," which will never do the kind of broad damage as we saw in Iraq. Yet the "smart sanctions" on Iran target Iran's oil and gas industries, the national shipping lines, and Iran's banking system.  If the U.S. or UN sanctions are successful, the damage to Iran's economy, and its population as a whole, will be enormous, and indiscriminate. As we hear that Israel will now allow potato chips and juice into Gaza, it is hard to fathom how anyone could rationalize that these ever presented a threat to Israel's security. But above all what we should know from Iraq is this: that causing destitution in distant lands does not make the world a better place, or make the United States, or anyone else, more secure.

Joy Gordon is the author of "Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions." This piece contains text that is adapted from Joy Gordon's Invisible War. Electronically reproduced by permission of the publisher from "Invisible War" by Joy Gordon, Copyright 2010 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

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The Middle East Channel

Asian influence in the Middle East -- friend or foe?

The United States has become accustomed to its hegemonic military presence in the greater Middle East. The U.S.-led international coalition against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in August, 1990 led to a massive increase in America's direct military presence in the Gulf. Its military presence accelerated after the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, U.S. forces are deployed all the way from the Sinai desert through the Arabian Peninsula, Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, as well as Afghanistan. While the U.S. has come to take its unchallenged military primacy in the Middle East for granted, key Asian countries -- especially India, China, Japan and South Korea -- have also increased their Middle East presence. The U.S. shouldn't view this as a threat but rather an opportunity for greater cooperation on a wide spectrum of growing security concerns.

The signs of Asia's push into the Gulf can be seen everywhere. All around the Arabian Gulf, hotels, banks, schools, and shopping centers are managed by Asian expatriate workers, who also provide most of the region's manual labor. Without Asian labor, the oil-rich economies of the Gulf would collapse. Many of the vast construction projects in Doha, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and other city-states are supervised by South Korean companies. Most of the automobiles and trucks on the street are Japanese or Korean. The endless procession of tankers that sail from the huge ports of the Gulf carrying oil and liquefied natural gas is destined increasingly for the Asian market. Infrastructure projects, including new roads, railways, seaports, airports, gas and oil pipelines, and undersea communication lines, are expanding in both the Middle East and Central Asia, making access between the two regions easier and cheaper. These trends suggest that, absent a protracted global recession, the Asian presence in the Middle East will continue to grow significantly over the coming decade.

Over the next 30 years, the economies of India and China are expected to surpass that of the United States in size (although as a result of population growth, their per capita GDP will remain relatively low), giving their governments increased regional and global clout. As India and China grow, Japan will be left behind. Nonetheless, Japan is likely to remain a key Asian power, given its close ties to the United States. Moreover, Japan's energy needs will keep it tied to the Gulf. Similarly, South Korea, while smaller than Japan, is already deeply engaged in the Middle East, especially in the energy sphere. Lacking domestic oil reserves, South Korea is the world's fifth-largest importer of oil and the eleventh-largest importer of liquefied natural gas. In addition, South Korean construction companies have been hired to build oil refineries, petrochemical plants, offices, and infrastructure across the Middle East.

India is an under-appreciated player in this new Asian Middle East. The Indian subcontinent has had close commercial ties with the Gulf for centuries, and India today has managed to cultivate good working relationships with all the countries in the Middle East, including Israel. While economic interests have provided the basis for many of those relationships, India has also taken on a modest military role. The Indian government has participated in Middle East peacekeeping operations since 1956. In addition, India has been increasing its bilateral military ties with all of the small countries in the Gulf. India is likely to establish a stronger, more assertive presence in the Gulf over the coming decades.

It is China, of course, which gets most of the attention. For a short period in the fifteenth century, China was the dominant power in the Indian Ocean, but over the centuries that followed, it had little to do with the Middle East. After the Communist Revolution in 1949, China tried to cultivate close relationships with revolutionary groups in the Arab world, but its efforts were violently opposed by Arab nationalists. In the wake of the Sino-Soviet split and China's eventual rapprochement with the United States in 1972, China changed course and sought instead to establish cordial relations with Middle Eastern governments. In particular, it became more directly involved in the geopolitics of the region through arms sales, notably to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq, during the 1980s. More recently China has followed India's example by becoming engaged in Mideast peacekeeping. China's participation in United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) began officially on April 9, 2006.

Considerable uncertainty remains regarding China's future presence in the region, particularly in the military arena. China is a long way from the Gulf, but if its permanent maritime reach eventually expands into the Indian Ocean and its overland reach grows through Central Asia and Pakistan, it, too, could become a major strategic player in the Middle East. The attention paid to China's voice in the debate over sanctions on Iran offers a stark contrast to its limited role in the debate over sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s.

It is easy to see the growing doubts about how long the United States can sustain its presence in the region and remain the policeman of the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Two wars have drained American resources. The financial crisis also diminished U.S. prestige by calling into question the validity of its economic model, which had been eagerly pursued on the Arabian Peninsula, the richest part of the Middle East. If all these factors coalesced to bring about a slow U.S. retreat from the region, would any Asian powers fill the vacuum? 

On this point, there is no consensus. Some acknowledge the importance of Asia's economic and cultural expansion into the Middle East but argue that domestic factors in India and China will limit their ability to play the role now held by the United States. Others maintain that, to the contrary, China is likely to take a more aggressive approach to the Middle East and develop close relationships with countries like Syria and Iran. Still others focus on the growing relationship between India and the United States, arguing that it may serve to counterbalance Chinese ambitions. The new dynamics must take into account not only growing ideological challenges to the West, but also the reemergence of more traditional balance-of-power politics as the Asian nations become world players and the sense that Americans may eventually grow tired of protecting the assets of "free loaders."

In many ways an increased growing Asian presence in the Middle East will bring a breath of fresh air to a region left with the bitter historic legacies of European dominance and characterized by contemporary antagonism toward the hegemonic role of the United States. The major Asian players in the Middle East have not been colonizers or occupiers and they have far less of an emotional stake in the Arab-Israeli conflict. On the one hand, that means that they approach political issues and unresolved conflicts with what some would argue is a cynical, laissez-faire attitude, perhaps exemplified by China's initial indifference to human rights abuses in Sudan. However, the upside is that the Asians do not interfere directly in Middle East politics and therefore enjoy good relations with most states. How long they can sustain their hands-off approach is questionable if, by virtue of their economic dominance and their own strategic stakes in the region, they get drawn into the messiness of Middle East politics at a time when the United States becomes disillusioned by the burdens of hegemony.

In the meantime, it is very much in the interests of both the U.S. and the Asian countries to reach common agreements on the importance of preventing further conflict in the region and jointly assuring the security of the increased maritime traffic across the Indian Ocean. Cooperation on meeting the piracy challenge off the coast of Somalia is an early test of this new strategic reality.

Geoffrey Kemp is the Director of Regional Strategic Programs at the Nixon Center. This article summarizes some of the key themes in his latest book The East Moves West: India, China, and Asia's Growing Presence in the Middle East (Brookings Institution Press 2010).

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