Excerpt from Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions, Joy Gordon. Harvard University Press, 2010

This book was originally conceived as a discussion of the ethics of economic sanctions, for which the Iraq sanctions regime would serve as a case study. But in the course of researching and writing about the Iraq sanctions it became clear that they were about much more than Iraq, and much more than sanctions. Rather, what emerged from the documents and interviews concerning the Iraq sanctions was the story of how the United States projected influence within a central institution of international governance, as the Cold War ended, at the juncture when U.S. dominance was nearly absolute; in the decade that followed, when the international community, including most of our allies, became more reluctant to comply with U.S. desires; and finally, when the United States found itself in an intractable situation from which it had no viable exit strategy.

With the Security Council no longer paralyzed by the Cold War and with no other nation in a position to challenge the U.S. dominance, it was possible for the United States to pursue a project that would have the imprimatur of international governance as well as the mandatory participation of every member state of the UN.

While the United States consistently justified its policies in terms of preventing Iraq from developing weapons or threatening its neighbors, the U.S. policy went well beyond any rational concern with security. There was an elaborate architecture of policies that found a dozen other ways to simply do gratuitous harm that had not the least relation to the threat Iraq might have posed to its neighbors or to anyone else.

For thirteen years the United States unilaterally prevented Iraq from importing nearly everything related to electricity, telecommunications, and transportation, blocked much of what was needed for agriculture and housing construction, and even prohibited some equipment and materials necessary for health care and food preparation.

Ironically, where the United States accused the Iraqi government of acting with incomprehensible perversity, such as failing to order needed medicines, it turns out that in many cases it was the U.S. positions that were incomprehensible and perverse, such as objecting to Iraq’s import of antibiotics and child vaccines.

Throughout the sanctions regime, U.S. practices were extreme and harsh, and often unilateral, going 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 deliberate and systematic nature of the U.S. policy was evident above all in the redundancy. The water treatment system was compromised first by the lack of 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, 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. 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 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.

As the criticism grew, there is no sign that anyone in the U.S. administration, and only a tiny handful within Congress, actually took it to heart— actually questioned the sanity and legality of reducing an entire civilization to a preindustrial state, of bankrupting an entire nation for the purpose of containing one tyrannical man. As the criticism grew and the suffering continued on a massive scale, the U.S. administration stubbornly saw itself as alone in its moral leadership, never grasping the significance or thoroughness of its isolation and marginality. It seems that the United States simply could not see its policies the way the rest of the world did: not just Arab nations, or France or Russia, but nearly everyone— the General Assembly, NGOs, UNMOVIC, the UN’s human rights rapporteur, every UN humanitarian agency, and nearly every member of the Security Council.

U.S. officials did not act with the deliberate cruelty that is envisioned by international human rights law. It was not a hatred of Iraqis that led U.S. officials to act as they did; it was the decision that the Iraqis would bear the cost of the United States’ intractable political dilemma. This particular catastrophe did not require actual hatred; it required only the capacity of U.S. officials to believe their own rationales, however implausible they might have been, and that there be no venue in which to challenge their reasoning as casuistic and disingenuous. Madeline Albright’s memorable gaffe in response to the question “500,000 children— is it worth it?”— which she regretted for years— was always and only a public relations error. It made no difference that she and other State Department officials, from that point on, vigorously insisted that they cared deeply about Iraqi children. The more accurate answer, regardless of the public rhetoric, was: of course it was worth it. Blocking glue, water pipes, water tankers, thermos fl asks, ambulance radios, irrigation equipment— all of this was worth it because the negligible imaginary possibility that these could be turned to nefarious purposes always outweighed the collapse of the Iraqi health system, Iraq’s frantic efforts to increase agricultural production, the disappearance of Iraq’s middle class, the hundreds of thousands of tons of untreated sewage that went daily into Iraq’s rivers.

Digitally reproduced by permission of the publisher from Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions by Joy Gordon, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright (c) 2010 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.