News that the United States has been voted off the UN Human Rights Commission and the UN international drug monitoring board has elicited vows of revenge from conservatives in Congress. They threaten to withhold payment on the long-unpaid dues owed the UN. They blame our adversaries--China, Cuba, Sudan and others--for the insult. But the secret votes enabled allies as well as adversaries to vent their mounting exasperation with US policies. At the last session of the commission, the United States stood virtually alone as it opposed resolutions supporting lower-cost access to HIV/AIDS drugs, acknowledging a human right to adequate food and calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, while it continued to resist efforts to ban landmines.
The global outrage is by no means limited to US policies on the Human Rights Commission. In barely 100 days in office, the Bush Administration has declared the Kyoto accords on global warming dead, spurning eight years of work by 186 countries. It banned US support for any global organization that provides family planning or abortion services, even as an AIDS pandemic makes this a matter of life and death. It bade farewell to the antiballistic missile treaty, while slashing spending on nuclear safety aid for Russia. It casually bombed Iraq, helped shoot down a missionary's plane over Peru and enforced an illegal and irrational boycott of Cuba. It sabotaged promising talks between North and South Korea, publicly humiliating South Korea's Nobel prizewinning president, Kim Dae Jung. The nomination as UN ambassador of John Negroponte, former proconsul in Honduras during the illegal contra wars, is an insult. "There is a perception," said one diplomat in carefully parsed words, "that the US wants to go it alone."
Our lawless exceptionalism is a deeply rooted, bipartisan policy that didn't begin with the Bush Administration. Under previous Presidents, Democratic and Republican, Washington denounced state-sponsored terrorism while reserving the right to bomb a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan or unleash a contra army on Nicaragua. It condemned Iraq for invading Kuwait while reserving the right to invade Panama or bomb Serbia on its own writ. The United States advocated war crimes tribunals against foreign miscreants abroad while opposing an international criminal court that might hold our own officials accountable. Our leaders proclaim the value of law and democracy as they spurn the UN Security Council and ignore the World Court when their rulings don't suit them. The Senate refuses to ratify basic human rights treaties. The US international business community even opposes efforts to eliminate child labor. And of course, there are those UN dues, which make us the world's largest deadbeat.
Worse is yet to come. US policy is a direct reflection of its militarization and the belief that we police the world, we make the rules. The Bush Administration plans a major increase in military spending to finance new weapons to expand the US ability to "project" force around the globe--stealth bombers, drones, long-range missiles and worse. The tightly strung Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sounds increasingly like an out-of-date Dr. Strangelove as he pushes to open a new military front in space, shattering hopes of keeping the heavens a zone of peace.
As the hyperpower, with interests around the world, America has the largest stake in law and legitimacy. But the ingrained assumption that we are legislator, judge, jury and executioner mocks any notion of global order. From the laws of war to the laws of trade, it is increasingly clear that Washington believes international law applies only to the weak. The weak do what they must; the United States does what it will.
After the cold war, we labeled our potential adversaries "rogue nations"--violent, lawless, willing to trample the weak and ignore international law and morality to enforce their will. Now, in the vote at the UN, in the headlines of papers across Europe, in the planning of countries large and small, there is a growing consensus that the world's most destructive rogue nation is the most powerful country of them all.
This is not a role most Americans support. Public interest groups and concerned individuals will vigorously remind Congress of the widespread popular backing in this country for paying our UN dues, for global AIDS funding and other forms of international involvement. Unilateralism must be opposed in all its guises, from national missile "defense" to undermining efforts to curb global warming. The United States was founded on a decent respect for the opinions of mankind. Let's keep it that way.
The stage is set for a showdown over the fate of undocumented workers.
A grassroots movement for immigrant legalization is gathering strength.
America's provocative military posture in Asia makes war with China more likely.
The current President George Bush, whose very name evokes a dark era many would prefer to forget, seems determined to resurrect the ghosts of America's scandal-ridden past. A number of his foreign policy appointments are former Iran/contra operatives who are being rehabilitated and rewarded with powerful foreign policy posts.
John Negroponte's nomination to be US ambassador to the United Nations is a case in point. Bush has named him to represent the United States at an institution built on principles that include nonintervention, international law and human rights. Qualifications for the job: Negroponte was a central player in a bloody paramilitary war that flagrantly violated those principles and was repeatedly denounced by the institution in which he would now serve. As ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, Negroponte was the acknowledged "boss" of the early covert contra operations; he also acted as a proconsul, working closely with the Honduran military commander, whose forces aided the covert war while his embassy consistently denied or misrepresented politically inconvenient evidence of atrocities and abuse.
The nomination of Otto Reich to be Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere is even more offensive to international and domestic principles. A longtime anti-Castro Cuban-American, Reich is backed by Senator Jesse Helms and the hard-line exile groups that want political payback for giving Bush his real or imagined margin of victory in Florida.
Like Negroponte, Reich was a key player in the illicit contra war. In 1983 a CIA propaganda specialist named Walter Raymond handpicked Reich to head the new and innocuous-sounding Office of Public Diplomacy. Housed in the State Department, Reich's office actually answered directly to Raymond and to Oliver North in the White House. A General Accounting Office review showed that Reich's office repeatedly provided sole source contracts to other members of North's network, including those involved in illegal fundraising for arms. More important, a Comptroller General's review concluded that Reich's office had "engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public."
Among those activities, as revealed in declassified records, were "white propaganda" operations--having contractors plant articles in the press or influence print and TV coverage while hiding their government connection--and using US military psychological warfare personnel to engage in, as Reich put it, "persuasive communications" intended to influence public opinion.
Reich himself engaged in a crude form of "persuasive communications," personally berating media executives and harassing reporters if news coverage was not favorable to the Reagan Administration's position. When NPR's All Things Considered ran the first major investigative report on contra human rights atrocities, Reich demanded a meeting with its editors, producers and reporters, at which he informed them that his office was "monitoring" all their programs and that he considered NPR to be biased against the contras and US policy. A Washington Post stringer remembers that after a contentious briefing from Reich in Managua in which the stringer and a reporter from Newsweek questioned the truthfulness of the Administration's assertions, an article appeared in a right-wing newsletter put out by Accuracy in Media calling him a "johnny sandinista" and falsely asserting that the Nicaraguan government was providing the two reporters with prostitutes. Reich's office, the then-US Ambassador to Managua told the Post reporter, was responsible for the rumors.
Reich's role as a revolving-door lobbyist is also likely to be a factor in his nomination hearings. As a partner in the Brock Group, a lobbying firm that according to Justice Department records represented the anti-Castro liquor giant Bacardi, Reich advised Jesse Helms's office on the drafting of the Helms-Burton legislation, which tightens the embargo against Cuba. Since passage of the law in 1996, Reich's own lobbying firm, RMA International, has received $600,000 in payments from Bacardi. Another Reich organization, the US-Cuba Business Council, has received more than $520,000 in US Agency for International Development money for anti-Castro work supporting the goals of the Helms-Burton law. If he's confirmed, Reich would become the key policy-maker interpreting and implementing legislation on Cuba, which he was handsomely paid to promote--a clear conflict of interest.
Reich's only diplomatic credential is his 1986 posting as Ambassador to Venezuela, to which officials in Caracas repeatedly objected. While there, Reich became responsible for the case of notorious terrorist Orlando Bosch, jailed in Caracas on charges of masterminding the bombing of an Air Cubana flight that killed seventy-three people in 1976. In September 1987 Bosch wrote a letter in which he thanked the ambassador as "compatriot Otto Reich" for support--a letter that, after it became public, Reich described in a cable to Washington as "a case of Cuban-Soviet disinformation." When a Venezuelan court ruled that Bosch should be released in late 1987, Reich sent a short "Clearance Response" cable to the State Department's visa office--apparently a request for Bosch to enter the United States. Bosch subsequently entered the United States illegally and was detained on parole violation charges related to terrorism and threatened with deportation because, according to the Justice Department, he had "repeatedly expressed and demonstrated a willingness to cause indiscriminate injury and death." Reich's nomination hearings will provide the first public forum for him to explain the purpose of his "clearance" cable and what role, if any, he played in the first Bush Administration's clearly political decision to drop charges against Bosch and allow him to stay in Florida.
Negroponte has already survived confirmation hearings for two ambassadorships since the Iran/contra scandal and is unlikely to face significant opposition, but Democrats say they are drawing the line at Reich. Senators John Kerry and Christopher Dodd are leading the opposition to Reich on the grounds of his "questionable history." According to Senate aides, opponents plan to put a "hold" on the nomination--a tactic perfected by Helms against Clinton appointments--which will provide time for an investigation, access to classified records and organization of support from farm belt Republicans who understand that Reich's hard-line policy on the trade embargo against Cuba will hurt agricultural interests in their states. The political effort to line up votes against Reich and to seek full disclosure of documents on his public diplomacy operations, ambassadorship and corporate lobbying will begin in earnest after the Senate returns from Easter recess.
In a campaign reminiscent of the successful effort twenty years ago to block Reagan's anti-human rights appointee Ernest Lefever to be Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, the Center for International Policy, the Institute for Policy Studies and the Washington Office on Latin America, among others, are mobilizing to stop the nomination and are confident they can win. "With so much muck connected to his name and his past," suggests CIP director William Goodfellow, "Reich is an inviting target to show that the Democrats are not dead."
Indeed, failure to block Reich could open the door to ever more noxious foreign policy appointees. Senator Helms's top aide, Roger Noriega, is Bush's lead candidate to be ambassador to the Organization of American States. And at least one conservative religious group is touting pardoned Iran/contra criminal Elliott Abrams as a nominee for a human rights post--ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
It was touching to see Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger back on the tube again during the Hainan confrontation, with Brzezinski recommending to Jim Lehrer's audience that Kissinger be appointed supreme envoy and mediator for the resolution of the crisis. He wasn't completely clear on the credentials Kissinger would be employing: his usual ones as middleman and facilitator for US corporations in China (and chief justifier of the Tiananmen Square bloodbath in 1989) or his consummate skill as a handler of touchy moments on the Asian mainland.
Two senior citizens of the
cold war are chatting amiably over small cups of thick, sweet Cuban
coffee in a Havana hotel. Bob Reynolds, tall and erect in his
mid-70s, made clandestine trips to Havana for the CIA in the early
years of the Cuban Revolution. And in Miami, as CIA station chief, he
was in charge of recruiting thousands of tough young Castro-haters
and turning them into a fighting force to invade Cuba. Comandante
Ramiro Valdes, shorter, a few years younger than Reynolds, has a gray
goatee reminiscent of Trotsky and an iron handshake. One of the most
feared and respected men in Cuba, he was at Castro's side at all the
major events of the revolution and became chief of state security
after the 1959 victory.
Their encounter, counterspy and
spy, was one of many head-turning vignettes at a historic meeting
here in Havana, March 22-25, in which Americans and Cubans from
all sides reconstructed and relived the April 17, 1961, Bay of Pigs
invasion. On the Cuban side for three days of intense discussions
were Fidel Castro and sixty of his top military leaders; the US
delegation included five Cuban veterans of the CIA-trained 2506
Brigade, which carried out the invasion, and White House advisers
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Goodwin.
"We talked as
professional to professional," Reynolds said of his first-ever
meeting with Valdes. "I congratulated him on the effectiveness of
their system." Valdes had only a few months to organize islandwide
security before the Bay of Pigs invasion. He rejected the notion that
it was a draconian secret police system that doomed the effort. "I
told [Reynolds] it was the total support of the people for the
revolution," said Valdes.
Valdes disclosed that his
security network quickly rounded up 20,000 suspected dissidents in
the hours after the invasion began, squelching the US expectation
that the invasion would set off mass rebellion and sabotage on the
island. Valdes also revealed that Cuba had no intelligence from
inside the 2506 Brigade itself. The Cubans knew from secondary
sources and partly from US press accounts that an invasion was
imminent but did not know the date or landing site. Security on the
island, however, was so tight that according to Samuel Halpern, the
other CIA official at the meeting, the CIA found it virtually
impossible to plant agents anywhere but in rural areas. Halpern was
the CIA's point man on Operation Mongoose--the Kennedy Administration
special project against Castro that included intelligence collection,
sabotage and assassination missions inside Cuba.
across from Halpern and Reynolds, showing no sign of lingering
hostility to the Americans and Cubans who had plotted his overthrow,
even his death. On the contrary, the atmosphere was jovial,
respectful. Castro--who missed not one minute of the presentations
and himself talked in long half-hour and hour stretches--remarked at
one point that it was more than respectful, it was friendly. At a
final banquet, Castro used the word "family" to describe the
conference participants and the frank, intimate exchanges. Once,
José Ramon Fernandez, the Cuban battlefield general at the Bay
of Pigs, called the anti-Castro troops mercenarios, and Fidel
pointedly corrected him. "They're brigadistas," he
During a break, Castro rushed over for a private
conversation with CIA official Reynolds after an exchange in which
the Cuban side had been adamantly skeptical about Reynolds's denial
that the CIA saboteurs had blown up a ship unloading weapons in
Havana harbor in 1960. He shook hands and put his hands on Reynolds's
shoulders, saying, "I don't want you to think we are trying to settle
The five members of the 2506 Brigade
delegation were also frequently engrossed in deep conversation with
Cuban officials, although Castro himself seemed to make a point of
keeping them at arm's length. One brigade member, Roberto Carballo,
who runs a hotel in Cancun, Mexico, has a long record of anti-Castro
activities, including being named in newly declassified US documents
as a suspect in terrorist activities in the 1970s.
strongest disagreements at the meeting were among the members of the
US delegation over the actions of President Kennedy and his
Administration. Kennedy adviser Schlesinger presented a picture of
Kennedy as trapped--inheriting an ill-conceived invasion plan from
the previous Administration. There was the implication that CIA
officials sold Kennedy a bill of goods: Schlesinger said Kennedy
consistently refused to approve the direct use of US soldiers, but
the CIA strategy seemed premised on the conviction that Kennedy would
change his mind in the heat of battle and send in the Marines rather
than allow the invasion to go down to ignominious
There was no disagreement on the US side that the
invasion was ill conceived. Brigade member Alfredo Duran said the
United States not only failed to invade but also abandoned the troops
on the beach when it was clear that the invasion had failed. Duran
said privately later that some of the brigade soldiers were so angry
they fired their weapons at the US Navyships waiting
CIA official Halpern vigorously rebutted
Schlesinger's scenario. The Kennedys were not so innocent, he
insisted. He described a time shortly after the failed invasion when
Richard Bissell Jr. was called to a meeting with Robert and John Kennedy. "Get rid of
Castro, the Castro regime," Bissell said he was told. Halpern recounted, "I said what does
'get rid of' mean? And [Richard Bissell] said, 'Use your imagination.'"
The result, Operation Mongoose, proposed thirty-two different
measures, including assassination, to get rid of the
The National Security Archive, a sponsor of the
conference, presented a declassified document that refuted the idea
that the CIA led Kennedy to believe that all would not be lost if the
invasion failed, because the anti-Castro forces could melt into the
mountains and continue guerrilla warfare. The document described a
meeting in which a CIA official told Kennedy explicitly that in the
event of a failure, the only alternative was to evacuate the invasion
Perhaps the most bitter exchange came from brigade
member Luis Tornes, who said he became convinced that the United
States intentionally sent the soldiers to their death in the hope
that world opinion would blame Castro for mass murder. But Castro
didn't cooperate, and instead took the surviving invaders prisoner
and gave them medical treatment. About 120 of the 1,400 troops were
killed in battle. Cuba eventually released all the prisoners after
For Castro and his men, Playa Giron (as they prefer to call the battle) was an unalloyed David and Goliath victory. But in the United States the battle is still construed as just another episode in a dictator's undemocratic
survival. It is like much else in the tortured conflict between the
United States and Cuba. History and common sense point to ending a
standoff that has outlasted nine US Presidents and become an
increasingly absurd post-cold war footnote. As they did at the
meeting, Castro and his men couldn't proclaim more clearly their
desire for respect from, if not friendship with, the United States.
But it won't happen--not as long as the US Presidents who control the
writing of that final chapter remain tangled in a trap of their own
making, as was Kennedy when he launched the invasion forty years ago.
As Mexican president Vicente Fox begins his historic administration, the most difficult and abrasive issue that both he and the United States must confront is the continuing flow of immigration fr
Bush's national security advisers aren't up to the tasks before them.
A decade after economic sanctions were imposed on Iraq, international support for them is eroding rapidly. The Security Council is deeply divided. Air travel has resumed. As winter sets in, Iraq has threatened to stop pumping oil.
The situation in Iraq has been the most visible and elaborate of the sanctions regimes of this decade, and the ethical issues entailed have been particularly acute. But the issues raised by economic sanctions are also much broader. If the cold war's end gave rise to a unipolar "new world order," it also gave rise to a set of new experiments in global governance and the enforcement of international law, notably humanitarian intervention and economic sanctions. Economic sanctions are certainly not novel. Since ancient times, embargoes and siege warfare have been imposed, in the contexts of both trade competition and warfare. Comprehensive embargoes--the economic strangulation of a city or a people--have often been described in terms of the suffering and slow death they bring, particularly to the elderly, the ill and the very young. Michael Walzer, in his Just and Unjust Wars, quotes a passage from an account of the Roman siege of Jerusalem:
The restraint of liberty to pass in and out of the city took from the Jews all hope of safety, and the famine now increasing consumed whole households and families; and the houses were full of dead women and infants; and the streets filled with the dead bodies of old men. And the young men, swollen like dead men's shadows, walked in the market place and fell down dead where it happened. And now the multitude of dead bodies was so great that they that were alive could not bury them; nor cared they for burying them.... And they who were yet living, without tears beheld those who being dead were now at rest before them. There was no noise heard from within the city.
There are those who hold that siege warfare and economic sanctions are simply different things altogether. I am not of this view. I hold that, while the intent of economic strangulation may indeed be very different when the purpose is international governance rather than conquest, the empirical impact on civilian populations is the same; and for this reason, to knowingly impose hardship and harm on the vulnerable, even where there is a "good cause," is morally problematic. The near-comprehensive embargo on Iraq, which continues to exact a devastating toll on its population, demands the most serious kind of ethical scrutiny, regardless of the fact that it is imposed within the context of international governance.
The modern version of economic sanctions as a form of international governance came about at the end of World War I, when the League of Nations envisioned the boycott as an alternative to warfare and as the device that would bring aggressor nations to their knees--but gently, bloodlessly. It would be, as Woodrow Wilson put it, "a peaceful, silent, deadly remedy." The League's boycott of Mussolini did not so much as give him pause, though, and economic sanctions were dismissed, along with the League of Nations, as ineffectual.
But the view of economic sanctions as a nonviolent means to prevent aggression and restore peace did not disappear altogether. It resurfaced in the United Nations Charter, in Chapter VII, which addresses aggression and threats to peace. Article 41 gives the Security Council the option of using economic measures to respond to aggression, and Article 42 provides a military option as well, in the event that other measures fail. Economic sanctions continued to be used by groups of nations or single nations--in particular the United States--to pursue foreign policy, to pressure or to "send a message." Of the more than sixty sanctions cases between 1945 and 1990, the United States initiated more than two-thirds; and in three-quarters of those, the United States acted with little to no participation from other countries.
The cold war paralysis of the Security Council meant that if the United States had tried to persuade the Council to sanction the Soviets or a client state, such a resolution would have been vetoed, and the same would have happened if the Eastern bloc had tried as well. Economic sanctions were used by the Security Council only twice in the next four decades, against Rhodesia and South Africa.
Discussion of economic sanctions among political scientists was far more active. In the 1960s and '70s, Johan Galtung and others noted that to the extent that sanctions were intended to undermine the legitimacy of the wrongdoing state, they were quite ineffectual. In fact, they typically generated a "rally round the flag" effect: In the face of economic sanctions imposed by foreign nations, the population tended to support their leaders far more vocally. Others looked at the logistical and political problems of sustaining sanctions, when some nations were less committed than others or suffered greater economic losses by the imposition. By the 1980s there was a resurgence of interest in sanctions, brought on in part by the Soviet grain embargo following its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, and considerable discussion of the problem of effectiveness.
How do we know when sanctions are "effective"? Is it when the targeted leader succumbs and complies? Or is there a kind of effectiveness that comes just from creating pressure and changing the calculus of the decision-making process? Or even if neither of these occurs, maybe the goal of sanctions can simply be to "send a message" or impose retribution, in which case they are, as it were, automatically successful.
Until 1990 the question of whether sanctions were ethical or not was rarely raised, although they had been implemented something like 120 times since the close of World War I. The only notable exception was the (presumably hypocritical) claim of the Reagan Administration to be concerned about the humanitarian consequences of sanctions on South Africa. Indeed, there was little reason to be particularly concerned about the ethics of sanctions. Comprehensive sanctions were impossible, again because of the cold war: If the United States embargoes Cuba, Cuba can turn to the Soviets. As a result, the economic sanctions that were imposed were partial and porous. They caused some inconvenience, or caused economic loss in particular areas, but they couldn't shut down an economy or generate widespread and extreme suffering. At the time that Iraq invaded Kuwait, sanctions were seen as a "middle route": They were more concrete than mere diplomatic protests and far less lethal than warfare. It is one of the ironies of our times that a measure that was long understood to be a nonviolent method to achieve peacekeeping has in fact generated more civilian deaths than any weapon of mass destruction.
The 1990s saw the end of the paralysis in the Security Council and, with it, sanctions imposed against eleven countries, most notably Iraq. The Iraq sanctions, in a sense, say less about Iraq than they do about the unipolar world, in which comprehensive measures are now possible. The result of a comprehensive global enforcement of trade restrictions, after massive destruction from bombing, is devastation. In Iraq everything from nutrition to education to agriculture has lost a generation; not to mention the social instability, loss of scientists and intellectuals, and the exodus of the professional class. Iraq has by several measures gone from being a First or Second World country, with considerable wealth and a healthy and highly educated population (the most prevalent health problem for Iraqi children in the 1980s was obesity), to a pre-industrialized economy, in which the middle class has lost everything, the poor have suffered horribly and criminals and black marketeers are doing quite well.
More modest versions of the same phenomenon took place in the sanctions regimes against Haiti and Yugoslavia, where the constriction of the economy meant that the state held greater control over communications and mass media, existing inequities between the wealthy and the poor became far more extreme, and those who suffered worst were those least responsible for the state's policies--infants and young children, the elderly, widows with children, the sick and the handicapped.
So it is not surprising that a great deal of attention is now being paid to the question of sanctions, in particular the situation in Iraq, and that the writings are as diverse and contentious as they are. Iraq Under Siege, edited by Anthony Arnove, offers poignant descriptions and photos of the suffering of Iraqis under the sanctions. With chapters written by Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Voices in the Wilderness and others, it presents the perspective of activists and intellectuals who most vocally oppose the sanctions on Iraq. It offers information on the deterioration of public health and the media portrayal of the issue, as well as an interview with former UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq Denis Halliday, while it also lodges accusations and stories of US global bullying and callousness on this situation.
Anthony Cordesman's Iraq and the War of Sanctions is a detailed analysis of Iraq's armed forces, with a good deal of useful information about Iraq's weapons capabilities. It also includes features such as a 139-page "table," a day-by-day chronology from July of 1997 to November of 1998, describing in excruciating detail hundreds of excerpts from press conferences, meetings and reports by every conceivable party. All this ultimately demonstrates, according to Cordesman, that Iraqi leaders misstated facts and sought to exploit the growing "sanctions fatigue" in the Security Council (neither of which seem to me surprising, or in need of such elaborate documentation, any more than would the observation that US leaders also misstated facts and used political pressure to retain support for the sanctions in an increasingly uneasy Security Council). Cordesman also goes a bit further than simply focusing on the weapons issues rather than humanitarian concerns. At one point, he makes the fairly odd claim, based on 1997 CIA data, that the infant mortality rate in Iraq did not increase greatly in the 1990s. He maintains that World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that held otherwise "could not survive minimal peer group review in any normal research effort," and that estimates in the mid-1990s of the human damage due to sanctions came from "a small fringe group of US doctors." In fact, the massive public health crisis in Iraq that has resulted from the sanctions has been documented extensively by UNICEF, the International Red Cross and a host of other organizations. Scholarship on the magnitude of the public health crisis has been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine, as well as in many other medical and public health journals, with the major researchers in this area from Harvard and Columbia universities.
The Iraq sanctions committee of the Security Council has been harshly criticized by activists and ethicists for its burdensome procedures and arbitrary decision-making in granting humanitarian waivers for Iraq's purchase of essential goods for the civilian population. It must be noted that the situation has improved dramatically under the Oil-For-Food program--applications and guidelines are available on the OFF website, submissions can be made electronically and approvals for large classes of goods are granted quickly. But it is nevertheless fascinating to read Paul Conlon's account of the first years of the Iraq sanctions committee's operation, United Nations Sanctions Management: A Case Study of the Iraq Sanctions Committee, 1990-1994. I have never before heard of any bureaucratic apparatus with such an extreme aversion to transparency that the agenda for its meetings was not distributed to its own members and no actual minutes were kept, only summaries. The 6,000 decisions per year were not computerized, making them effectively unavailable, even to the committee's members.
Needless to say, the meetings were closed, and neither vendors nor representatives of Iraq were permitted to attend for the purpose of addressing questions about a proposed contract. No criteria for approval or rejection were formulated, much less made available to Iraq or to companies seeking to sell goods to Iraq. When a contract was rejected, no reasons were given to the applying company (or to its permanent mission to the UN, which presented all proposed contracts of its nationals). Thus, a company or government could not know whether the flaw in a rejected contract was that the goods were prohibited, the quantity was unacceptable, the vendor was unacceptable or someone on the committee was just in a foul mood that day. The committee operated by consensus, which meant that a hold by any of the fifteen members (the Iraq sanctions committee mirrored the Security Council) could block a contract. The situation was not helped by the apparent arbitrariness of the decisions--identical goods, in identical quantity, by the same vendor, could be approved at one time and rejected six months later.
The Permanent Five members of the Security Council, especially the United States, ended up with enormous influence in these proceedings, but, interestingly, for a very different reason from what is the case in the Security Council itself. In the Security Council the P5 hold veto power and the rotating members do not--a fact that has obvious (and enormous) ramifications. In the Iraq sanctions committee the influence had a different source: Because there were virtually no mechanisms of institutional memory, and because each year a third of the committee rotated off , the P5 were the only members who knew what had happened in prior years and prior cases, and could invoke those in arguing each new waiver application. Were ambulance tires approved before? Does beer count as a "foodstuff"? Can an Iraqi diplomat sell his car before returning home, or is that a violation of the sanctions regime?
Conlon tells us that the arbitrariness was not as extreme as it seemed. He says that the committee was broadly guided by the US focus on end-use and end-users, based upon an analysis of which sectors should be given priority. Thus, tires for ambulances would be approved, whereas identical tires for private cars would not. But that did little to clarify to anyone else--Iraq, vendors, other states--what on earth was going on, and it had the overall result of presenting far more obstacles to the flow of humanitarian goods.
The bizarre aspect of the committee's operations was not limited to its extreme commitment to nontransparency. The conflicts of interests and agendas took several forms, as the parties that had pressed most adamantly for restricting Iraqi imports then held responsibility for granting exemptions to it (see my March 22, 1999, Nation article on the operations of the 661 committee). Conlon tells the following story: In 1991 the bombing by the United States and Britain destroyed the windows in a Baghdad building that housed a UN agency, the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. The cost of replacing the glass was $56,000. As summer approached, air conditioning was impossible without its replacement, and temperatures were expected to rise to 120 degrees--more or less frying the $4 million worth of UN computer equipment in the building. The UN itself applied for a waiver (all UN agencies, as well as international humanitarian organizations, were required to seek humanitarian waivers from the committee for economic transactions or exports to Iraq), and the United States vetoed the application, on the grounds that the repairs were technically illegal, since they would involve the purchase of $56,000 worth of glass and services from Iraqi glaziers. "During acrimonious debate," Conlon writes, "no delegate [was] impolite enough to bring up the fact that the government taking the hard line in this matter had caused the damage in the first place." The UN Secretariat intervened, and the matter was ultimately resolved diplomatically after special appeal.
By far the most impressive work on the Iraq sanctions is Sarah Graham-Brown's Sanctioning Saddam: The Politics of Intervention in Iraq. It is a thorough and scholarly work, with meticulous documentation of the impact and operations of sanctions, the refugee crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan and the functioning of NGOs. Based on an apparently exhaustive analysis of every reliable source of information on Iraq, Graham-Brown includes discussions of not only the Iraqi political parties but all the Kurdish ones as well, estimates of the amount of smuggling that occurs through various routes, human rights abuses and the mechanisms of state survival, the rationing system and its role in staving off famine while solidifying state control of the existing economy, and on and on. It is a rich and thorough work that does not shy away from identifying the tensions, the confusion, the ambivalence or the raw callousness that has marked the agenda of nearly every party in this interminable nightmare. We might begin with the shifting of blame: "Those in the international community who wish...to see sanctions remain in place, stress the political responsibility of the regime for all the outcomes of sanctions, whether foreseen or not. The regime, on the other hand, continues to use civilian suffering to call for the lifting of sanctions, and to blame on those sanctions all the ills of society." Yet there is more than enough blame to go around. The invasion of Kuwait was rooted in part in Iraqi policies that had led (despite significant gains in health and education) to a deteriorating overall economy alongside an enormous military. At the same time, the Security Council has said precious little about the massive influx of arms into Iraq and Iran--sold to them by members of the P5--during the 1980s.
Graham-Brown suggests that the intractable shortsightedness that has marked the Iraq sanctions regime appears in every domain. As aid agencies, Security Council actors and Iraq continued to treat the humanitarian problems as short-term emergencies and limited imports to emergency relief while prohibiting reconstruction, planning for even six months or a year in advance was impossible, and economic and institutional stability was precluded. This in turn perpetuated the problems of food insecurity, long-term malnutrition and deterioration of infrastructure. Regardless of the emergency relief available, the overall collapse in the economy, industrial production and education devastated the middle class and triggered the flight of professionals and rapid growth in the uneducated and unemployed. It generated a considerable increase in theft, prostitution and begging as means of economic survival and as markers of social deterioration.
In the end, despite the emergence of an elaborate humanitarian-exemptions regime within the sanctions bureaucracy, there is no satisfactory resolution of the fundamental tension between accomplishing the economic strangulation of a country of 22 million people and doing so without widespread humanitarian consequences. "We break their legs, and then we give them crutches," Graham-Brown quotes an aid worker as saying. And, in the end, there is no reason to expect that the strategy of radical disarmament of a single nation will lay the groundwork for lasting peace in the region. Given the local arms buildup (Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt were among the leading recipients of conventional arms between 1992 and 1996, and the arms purchases by Iran and Syria did not diminish), once the sanctions are over, it is hard to think that the leader of Iraq--whether it is Saddam Hussein or someone else--will not be tempted to do some catching up.
The recent books on sanctions also address broader questions that go beyond the situation of Iraq. The Sanctions Decade: Assessing UN Strategies in the 1990s, edited by David Cortright and George A. Lopez, offers an overview of the transformation in the role of the UN, as it imposed economic sanctions with both a frequency and scale that was unprecedented. Using case studies of the countries sanctioned by the Security Council, the authors look at the structural tensions between the Security Council and the member states in this context, as well as the increasing sophistication of institutional processes to implement sanctions along with humanitarian exemptions. In a broader context, they also discuss methods for studying and evaluating sanctions, as well as the emerging discussion about "smart sanctions" (those narrowly targeted to affect only political or military leaders, or particular items, such as arms). The result is a balanced overview of key conceptual issues, the factual background of each of the UN's sanctions episodes of this past decade and the political and institutional processes within which sanctions regimes were framed.
Geoff Simons's Imposing Economic Sanctions: Legal Remedy or Genocidal Tool? poses in stark terms the issue that some have started to raise, particularly in regard to Iraq. The Genocide Convention provides that one form of genocide is to deliberately inflict, on a national, ethnic, religious or racial group, "conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part," with the intent to destroy the group as such, in whole or in part. Simons contends that since ancient times, economic blockades have had this result, and he offers a good deal of factual information and some legal argumentation not found elsewhere in the voluminous literature on sanctions. I am not sure he succeeds in proving that sanctions do constitute genocide--the intent requirement is particularly thorny--but the extent of human loss in the sanctions episodes of the 1990s obliges us to examine that possibility closely.
Two other recent books address economic sanctions in the context of US foreign policy: Economic Sanctions and American Diplomacy, edited by Richard Haass, and Feeling Good or Doing Good With Sanctions: Unilateral Economic Sanctions and the U.S. National Interest, by Ernest Preeg. The Haass collection contains essays on both unilateral and multilateral sanctions episodes, including China, Cuba, Iraq, Libya and Pakistan. The book concludes with a set of observations (and corresponding recommendations) consistent with those made by many others in recent years: The imposition often causes considerable unintended secondary damage; sanctions are most effective when there is broad multilateral support; the more authoritarian the target state, the less likely sanctions are to generate effective internal pressure for change; international support for sanctions regimes tends to flag over time; and so on. Feeling Good or Doing Good With Sanctions also uses case studies, looking at Cuba, Iran, Vietnam, Myanmar and China. Preeg, like Haass and his contributors, sees sanctions as "deeply flawed" and suggests that this is particularly true where they are unilaterally imposed by the United States, to further US political, economic and security interests, without international support. In discussing the "inherent downsides," Preeg reiterates the problems of harming the civilian population and enhancing state control, all while adversely affecting US commercial interests and burdening relations with US allies and trading partners.
What is striking about both books is the degree to which they reiterate the arguments against sanctions from the 1970s and 1980s: Sanctions have political costs, both domestically and internationally; not only that, they don't accomplish what we want them to and are even counterproductive. Equally notable, both books miss the opportunity to point out that many of the truisms about sanctions don't apply to the United States, because of the singular political and economic influence it exercises. Conventional wisdom holds, for example, that unilateral sanctions tend to have little effect because they are necessarily limited and porous. Yet, in the case of Cuba the fact that certain goods are manufactured only in the United States (for example, parts for the US-made water purification system that has been in place since Batista's time, or an implantable defibrillator for heart patients) and that goods patented in the United States are, under US law, subject to embargo (such as a Swedish-made filter for dialysis machines) means that a whole array of crucial products is simply not available in Cuba at all, except by an extraordinary and costly process using intermediaries and sometimes smugglers. Because many of the major pharmaceutical companies in the world are American, these restrictions effectively render unavailable more than half of the new medicines available on the world market, including, for example, pediatric cancer medications. The United States is the only country in the world that can impose a unilateral embargo with such an effect.
Conventional wisdom also holds that unilateral sanctions are difficult to impose and sustain because they lack international support and, arguably, legitimacy. Yet what characterizes the United States, and almost no other country in the world, is precisely the ability to sustain sanctions unilaterally--not only without cooperation from other nations but in the face of widespread international protest and in open defiance of international laws concerning trade and extraterritoriality. The UN General Assembly has just condemned the US embargo of Cuba--with its attendant interference in Cuba's trade with third countries--for the ninth consecutive year, most recently by a vote of 167 to 3. Challenging the extraterritorial consequences of the US legislation, the European Union brought a case before the World Trade Organization; and Canada, Mexico and the EU passed retaliatory legislation. The unilateral embargo against Libya and Iran, which also provided for punitive measures against foreign companies engaged in trade with the target nation, were similarly condemned as extraterritorial. Thus, the United States is the only country in the world whose economic and political influence is so great that it can in fact do con-siderable damage with its unilateral sanctions; it can do so regardless of the rulings or resolutions of the recognized institutions of international governance.
Finally, the United States, more than any other country in the world, provides a graphic illustration of one of the often observed features of sanctions--that they are almost exclusively a tool of powerful nations and coalitions, which do the greatest damage to weaker and smaller nations. In the text accompanying the major database on economic sanctions, Economic Sanctions Reconsidered, the authors note that sanctions do the most severe economic damage to weak and import-dependent economies, while large and diversified economies are virtually immune. The sheer size and diversity of the US economy, its near-universal participation in global trade, the magnitude of the US military and a host of other factors make the United States effectively immune from the effects of embargoes of the sort that we have witnessed in Iraq, Haiti and Yugoslavia. The frequency and ease with which the United States imposes sanctions--with no fear of being subjected to the same sorts of disruption and damage--cannot be separated from this fact.
It is not clear what the future of economic sanctions will be. In this decade they have come to be used for purposes that go well beyond intervention to stop aggression, or "sending a message," or even retribution. We have seen sanctions used instead for the methodical devastation of a nation's infrastructure. At the same time, the United States and Britain no longer have the near-unanimous support of the Security Council that was present in 1990. It remains to be seen what lessons will be learned from a decade of using this deeply problematic instrument of international governance. One hopes they will include the idea that superpowers, above all, require restraint and accountability; and that a superpower that conflates self-interest with global governance, and political hegemony with moral mandate, is every bit as dangerous as a rogue dictator with a weapon of mass destruction.