Lessons of the Sanctions Against Iraq

If there is a single takeaway from the thirteen years of “crippling sanctions” against Iraq, it’s that the program didn’t work. Neocons and their allies — who pushed for a full invasion in the first Gulf War — were declaring as much in 1998, by which time they were already calling for blood. Eventually, they got their wish, and mired the U.S. — not to mention Iraq and the broader Middle East — in the ensuing disaster.

But are there more instructive lessons to take away from the experience of the 1990s and early 2000s, when Iraq was under blockade with the ostensible aim of keeping weapons out of Saddam Hussien’s hands? (Does this sound familiar yet?) Andrew Cockburn’s essay in the July 22 London Review of Books is a good place to start.

Some of the facts throughout his review of Joy Gordon’s book, “Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions,” will be new to many people. For instance, Yemen, which had a seat on the security council, had all their U.S. aid cut three days after casting a ‘no’ vote to UN sanctions. And some reatlities from the 1990s are so startling that Cockburn only serves to remind: Infant mortality in Iraq rising from 1 in 30, in 1990, to 1 in 8, in 1997.

The U.S. initially imposed sanctions on Iraq while Saddam’s army was still exploring Kuwait. At the time, writes Cockburn:

Iraqi sanctions were popular at first among the liberal-minded because they appeared to offer an alternative to war. As the Bush administration’s determination to go to war became clearer, allowing sanctions ‘time to work’ became a rallying cry for the peace party.

Sanctions, however, didn’t work in the early 1990s, and Iraq was invaded. Saddam was pushed back to his own border with Kuwait, and no farther. Neocons, riding high at the “end of history,” pushed for a full invasion, but lost out to realists in the George H.W. Bush administration.

But Bush continued sanctions against Iraq, officially waiting to confirm that Saddam didn’t have those elusive “weapons of mass destruction.” In short order, however, Bush established that sanctions were aimed at regime change. Cockburn digs up a quote from then-deputy national security adviser and now-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, which confirmed Bush’s shift:

“Saddam is discredited and cannot be redeemed. His leadership will never be accepted by the world community. Therefore,” Gates continued, “Iraqis will pay the price while he remains in power. All possible sanctions will be maintained until he is gone.”

Within a few years, everything from salt, to paint, to kids bikes were banned from entering Iraq. A humanitarian crisis unfolded, and there was Saddam Hussein, still on top. As Cockburn notes:

If the aim of such a comprehensive embargo had indeed been the dictator’s overthrow, its perpetrators might have pondered the fact that it was having the opposite effect. Saddam, whose invasion of Kuwait had led to the disaster, was now able to point to the outside powers as the source of Iraqis’ suffering.

Now, here’s an important point: The set-up for the second Gulf War came out of a Democratic presidency, where soon-to-be Secretary of State Madeline Albright said that the death of Iraqi children was “worth it,” a quote Cockburn usurps for the title of his essay. It was Albright who, at that top diplomatic post a year later, announced that the U.S. opposed weapons inspectors who wanted to declare Iraq in compliance with International demands on its weapons programs.

Take it away, Cockburn:

This provoked an escalating series of confrontations between the UNSCOM team and Iraqi security officials, ending in the expulsion of the inspectors, claims that Saddam was “refusing to disarm,” and, ultimately, war.

…[T]he West should think carefully before once again deploying the ‘perfect instrument’ of a blockade.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



  1. You describe Iraq as a failure. The main ideological proponents probably regards it as a success – an Arab country with a once significant army reduced to penury, its military destroyed and its civil structures degraded so that the main focus of Iraq is now purely internal.

  2. Genl. Westmoreland famously declared that life was cheap in E. Asia. Evidently lots of American leaders think life is cheap in the Middle East, too.

  3. Andrew has it right. People tend to overlook this.

  4. The UN estimated the US blockade killed one and a half million Iraqis, including 500 thousand under 5. I know that’s only 50% more than Yad Vashem Research’s estimate for the number of Jews who died at Auschwitz but it is still not trivial.
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  5. The interventions of the US in the Middle East have had a profound effect upon American ethics. The deaths incurred along the way of Arabs and other people (maybe over 1 million) do not faze the conscience of most Americans. Killing of “others” that can be labelled as “bad” has become an accepted standard. Where is the voice of the US Christian Churchs who should be following the teachings of Jesus Christ? The “Kooky Kristians” (the southern fundamentalists) are pushing for another war with Iran and support the inhumane actions of Israel to the hilt. When Christianity was rejected by His own Jewish people, Jesus and the early church moved on to the Gentiles, a class that encompasses every Arab in the region. Come on America, please get back to your Christian ethics.

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