The Price of Sanctions: Starving Iraqi Children

The eager armchair generals who are on the march again in their newspaper columns and press releases will have to wait before resuming the war against Iraq. That is, unless they admit that the seven years of economic sanctions on that devastated nation are themselves a form of war-making, waged primarily against civilians and especially children.

American editors and television producers are not particularly interested in showing what sanctions do to the societies of our adversaries. It’s depressing, it’s complicated, it involves pictures of diseased babies with distended bellies and mothers suffering without medicine, and it seems vaguely unpatriotic even as a topic of discussion. It is, on the other hand, also a matter of concern to other governments and peoples, whose worry over continuing sanctions against Iraq is not motivated solely by greed, as so many editorials and statements suggest.

That is why it was refreshing to hear, in the midst of the current crisis between Iraq and the United Nations over Saddam Hussein’s illegal expulsion of American weapons inspectors, that sanctions might be eased if the Iraqi dictator backs down. As a “senior Administration official” put it, “What we’re saying is that if they come into compliance, we’re prepared to look hard at the humanitarian issues.”

A very hard look would be commendable indeed. Last year, a World Health Organization study found that death rates among children under 5 years old in Iraq had risen by 600 percent since 1990, and that the country’s once-adequate health care system had been virtually disabled, as epidemics of diseases once thought to have been eradicated raged in the cities and countryside. The United Nations Children’s Fund puts the death toll among children at about 50,000 per year, or well over 300,000 so far.

Even though the United Nations has allowed some food and medicine to enter Iraq in exchange for limited sales of oil in the last 11 months, the effects of sanctions remain severe. As recently as September, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator for Iraq said he was deeply frustrated by lethal delays in the arrival of medical supplies. Iraqi doctors desperately need those supplies to treat outbreaks of malaria, typhoid and cholera that resulted from destruction of water and sewer facilities during the Gulf War, all worsened by malnutrition in the years since.

Before the war, Iraq imported almost three-fourths of its food. Combined with the ruin of its agricultural economy by the war, the disruption of food imports has caused enormous inflation of food prices and near-starvation for millions. During the summer, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reported that despite increased supplies provided by the oil-for-food deal, “cases of the nutritional diseases kwashiorkor and marasmus were widely observed.” Only the regime’s strict rationing of food has prevented massive starvation-which means, ironically, that sanctions have increased the power of Saddam Hussein.

The hope that such economic measures would somehow dislodge the wily dictator never made sense; populations weakened by hunger and illness tend to be passive, not revolutionary. Mr. Hussein himself doesn’t look as if he has lost any weight. No one should doubt that he, his Mukhabarat security police, his Republican Guard elite fighters and anyone else necessary to maintaining his power are all well fed and cared for.

American officials like to say they have “no quarrel with the Iraqi people,” but surely the Iraqi people have a quarrel with them. It is difficult for fortunate Americans to imagine the kind of despair felt by people who have watched their children die from lack of food and medicine, but that may be why so many “fanatics” in Baghdad seemed willing to sacrifice themselves in the event of United States air strikes.

Sanctions, in short, have failed as a political measure inside Iraq and have strained the international alliance against Mr. Hussein, perhaps the most dangerous fascist in the world. That is why the President has made the right choice by offering to ease trade restrictions if the United Nations inspection teams are permitted to resume their work. The best possible outcome of this policy is that the Iraqi people will get more food and medicine while the Iraqi dictator continues to be disarmed. The worst is that military action will be necessary, anyway, but only after the world has seen Mr. Hussein reject an offer that is in his nation’s best interest.

Before dispatching bombs and missiles-with the usual “collateral damage” to innocent civilians-the United States and the United Nations will at least have tried to combine diplomacy with an attempt to redress the inhumane effects of current policy.

The armchair generals will be impatient with this morally sane statecraft. Let us hope that President Bill Clinton, whose evasion of the Vietnam draft always leaves him vulnerable to criticism in matters of war and peace, has the courage to persevere regardless of any sniping. For now, the humane alternative is also the wisest and most cunning.

The Price of Sanctions: Starving Iraqi Children