Global Policy Forum

Back to Square One: The U.S. Needs a Whole New Strategy for Iraq


by Phyllis Bennis

Baltimore Sun
December 2, 1997
The latest skirmish between Iraq and the U.S., while provoked by Saddam Hussein's expulsion of Americans on the UN monitoring team, demonstrates two fundamental flaws in U.S. policy. First, the combination of brutal economic sanctions and historically insufficient curbs on arms sales by the U.S., Germany, Russia, France, and other allied countries, is inherently flawed from humanitarian, political, and arms-control perspectives. Second, the U.S. claim to represent a global consensus against Iraq is belied by Washington's consistent undermining, through selective enforcement and rewriting the terms, of UN decisions

When Iraq lost the Gulf war, the U.S. used the UN to dictate the terms of Iraq's surrender, bribing and threatening reluctant Security Council members to back resolution 687, its punitive cease-fire. Ambassador Abdullah al-Ashtal, then representing Yemen on the Council, remarked that "with this cease-fire we are still in a state of war. We need peace." Seven years later, there is still no peace.

The linchpin of 687 is the economic sanctions regime. Imposed ostensibly to pressure the Iraqi government into revealing and destroying its research and components for weapons of mass destruction, it has instead brought Iraq to its knees. Desperate civilians face insufficient food, water, electricity, and a serious brain drain of Iraq's vital intellectual and professional class.

The UN's 1996 oil for food arrangement allows Iraq to export small quantities of oil. But an October 1997 joint study by the UN's Food & Agriculture Organization and World Food Program, notes that "malnutrition still remains a serious problem throughout the country." The sanctions have "significantly constrained Iraq's import sufficient quantities of food to meet needs. As a consequence, food shortages and malnutrition became progressively severe and chronic in the 1990s."

In a new Iraq study just released November 26, the UN Children's Fund reports that "32% of children under the age of five, some 960,000 children, are chronically malnourished -- a rise of 72% since 1991." According to UNICEF's Baghdad representative, "what concerns us now is that there is no sign of any improvement since Security Council Resolution 986 [oil for food] came into force."

Certainly some aspects of 687 worked: UN inspectors agree Iraq's nuclear program has been destroyed, and monitors found and destroyed significant materiel for forbidden chemical, biological, and missile efforts. But overall, economic sanctions could not succeed. The Iraqi regime, throughout the 1970s and 80s, obtained American, French, German and other materials for a significant program constructing weapons of mass destruction. And to this day no effective sanctions were ever imposed against ANY companies that provided or may still be providing the Iraqi military with its dangerous components. It is no coincidence that the five largest weapons exporters in the world (along with Germany in the particular case of Iraq) happen to be the five permanent members of the Security Council: the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China. Arms from all these countries continue to flood into the Middle East, adding to the region's instability.

U.S. policy towards Iraq, despite the frequent rhetoric of coalition partnership and multilateral decisionmaking, has severely undermined the UN. Washington has consistently moved the UN's goalposts, undercutting the UN's stated commitment to lift oil sanctions as soon as monitors certified that weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed. Instead, President Clinton, Secretary of State Albright and others have continued the Bush administration position that the U.S. will not allow sanctions to be lifted as long as Saddam Hussein remains in power. The result, of course, is a negative incentive: Why should a recalcitrant Iraqi government make any effort to comply, knowing that sanctions will not be lifted no matter what it does?

Perhaps even more serious is the U.S. double standard towards UN resolutions. If the basis for imposing sanctions against Iraq was its occupation of Kuwait, what about Indonesia's brutal occupation of East Timor, or Israel's in Palestine, Lebanon or Syria? If the concern is human rights, what about Saudi Arabia, China, or Kuwait? If it's treatment of the Kurds, why should Turkey be exempt? Even within resolution 687 itself, only the punish-Iraq sections appear to be taken seriously. Washington ignores 687's reaffirmation of the UN call for a nuclear-free zone throughout the Middle East, since that would require disarming Israel's 200 high-density nuclear bombs -- not on the U.S. agenda.

And Washington's own history of backing Saddam Hussein cannot be forgotten. While Iraq's military did not use its available chemical or biological weapons (originally built from materials provided by Western arms exporters) during Desert Storm, it did use chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. At that time, the U.S. made no serious protest, allowed the gassing to go on, and continued providing Saddam Hussein with crucial military intelligence to bolster Baghdad against Tehran.

Such double standards continue to isolate the U.S. from its allies, and even more dramatically from countries in the global South. In the Middle East, the much-vaunted coalition that stormed the desert fell apart long ago. With anger exploding in the Arab street at continued U.S. backing for an expansionist, settlement-building Israel, Arab governments have little interest in joining a U.S. military build-up against Iraq. Clinton's decision to send the aircraft carrier George Washington to join the Nimitz in the Gulf reflected Pentagon unease over the refusal of ostensible allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia to allow any military raids against Iraq from their territories.

Iraq in a New Foreign Policy

U.S. policy towards Iraq must be completely redrawn. Washington should reject unilateral military action, and commit to real multilateral decisionmaking, in which risk assessments and policy decisions reflect actual international consensus, not simply the power of U.S. bribes and threats. Iraq policy should be only one component of a much wider diplomatic and political initiative aimed at a serious new international arms control regime, one paying particular attention to arms exporting countries.

That means a stringently enforced international campaign to stop the production and export of all components that can be used for weapons of mass destruction. As the most powerful nation on earth, the U.S. should take the lead in calling for wide-ranging arms control measures. These should include implementing, unilaterally at first if necessary, the long-violated sections of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty mandating nuclear disarmament by the Big Five nuclear powers. Washington should also support reinforced UN efforts to establish a no-exception nuclear-free and weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the arms-bloated Middle East. The Senate should also immediately ratify the Chemical Weapons Treaty, allowing unobstructed international inspection of U.S. chemical weapons facilities. Washington should stop claiming, as Jesse Helms and others do, the right to deny inspectors access to its "high security" sites -- ironically the exact privilege that Saddam Hussein is now demanding for Iraq.

At the UN, the Security Council should acknowledge that Resolution 687's brutal blunt instrument economic sanctions have failed. A new resolution should be drafted, following comprehensive consultations with the General Assembly's First (Disarmament) Committee and especially with the Arab Group of the Assembly. The U.S. should endorse the UN Charter's preference for regional diplomatic solutions; the League of Arab States should be involved as a major diplomatic player. The tight arms embargo should remain in place, but the oil sanctions should be lifted, allowing Iraq to purchase nonmilitary goods for civilian use. Reimposition of the type of crippling economic sanctions now devastating the civilian population must not be used as a threat to insure compliance with a weapons inspection or other arms control program; other persuasions must be found. While continuing UN weapons inspections in Iraq, the new mandate should include a detailed set of exact criteria Baghdad must meet to end the monitoring. Washington should state unequivocal support for the specific terms of the UN resolution, and should stop moving the goalposts, thereby undermining UN decisions and Saddam Hussein's incentives to comply. Additional sanctions against Iraq's military leaders, and not its civilian population, might include international travel bans on all officials involved in efforts to purchase restricted weapons-related goods, and freezing overseas accounts held by Iraqi military officials.

At the same time, the new UN resolution should include a broader monitoring program to track all components for weapons of mass destruction being produced, stockpiled, imported, or exported by all countries. Concerns about Iraq must be put in context. There are many terrible governments in the world, some armed and supported by the U.S. and far more powerful than Iraq today. Some are militarized and repressive, occupy other nations' lands, and are consistent violators of human rights. Many, believing themselves threatened by existing regional or global nuclear powers, turn to what are often called the poor countries' nuclear weapons (though rich countries hold the biggest arsenals): cheap and relatively easily obtainable chemical and biological weapons. All of these potential threats must be recognized and addressed politically, by reducing or eliminating altogether the existing nuclear arsenals that engender such terrible responses. Iraq is only part of that global problem.


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