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Straight Talk About Sanctions

We had practice tiptoeing to the mailbox long before Cipro became the cocktail of choice at Washington soirees.  From the profane to the profound, our readers don’t lack for strong opinions – or the wherewithal to express them colorfully.

The latest round of friendly fire locked onto a statement from PJB’s newest column: “With the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the U.S. had a chance to dissolve old Cold War alliances and adopt an America First policy of non-intervention…Instead, we launched the Gulf War, expanded NATO to Russia’s border, went nation-building in Somalia, invaded Haiti, plunged into the Balkans, smashed Serbia, and imposed sanctions that may have killed half a million Iraqis.”  That last phrase has our mailman working overtime.

“How can you say our sanctions…may have killed half a million people in Iraq?” wrote a Texas reader.  “The leftists say that all the time, but they say half a million children. The left lies all the time, so no thinking American pays that crowd any heed. But you! You know better…” 

The facts are these:  Since Desert Storm, child mortality in Iraq has doubled.  UNICEF puts the casualty count at 5,000 children dead each month, 60,000 each year, 500,000 since 1991.  Former UN humanitarian coordinator Denis Halliday says the toll is "probably closer now to 600,000. If you include adults, it’s well over 1 million Iraqi people."  Primary causes of death:  pneumonia, dysentery, cholera, tuberculosis, malnutrition.  In a country that once led the Arab world in medical advancement and technological progress, medical journals are embargoed, disposable syringes must be used again and again, and hospitals are left to distribute aspirin to the dying. Even when drugs come available, an impoverished population can’t afford treatment.   Medicine for a child with leukemia, which in the West has a 70% cure rate, costs 40,000 dinars –

$30 U.S. – a doctor’s annual salary. When former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked on 60 Minutes if our Mideast goals were advanced by these thousands of tiny graves, she responded, “We believe the price is worth it.”

Her calculus is indecipherable.  The original justification for sanctions was to prevent Iraq from reconstructing weapons of mass destruction. Eleven years later, intelligence reports reveal the opposite.  Our secondary goal was to pry Saddam from power, but an embittered population, broken by years of deprivation, is increasingly ill-equipped to overthrow the tyrant.

Despite American assurances that Baghdad rather than sanctions bears blame for the people’s plight, 22 million ordinary Iraqis don’t make that distinction.  Trained to regard us as the enemy, they do not transfer animus to their rulers.  Rather, the acts we regard as proportional justice become weapons turned against us as we write propaganda for the regime we’ve neither dislodged nor disarmed.  Moreover, we stoke resentment among Iraq’s Moslem brethren, uniting them in defiance over a policy that buys us no benefit.

We saw this happen in Afghanistan last year when the U.S. imposed sanctions on a war-beaten nation after the ruling Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden.  Rather than rebelling against the regime, blighted citizens took to the streets of Kabul, burning American flags and shouting “Death to America.”  In Pakistan, our sanctions didn’t convince leaders to abandon their nuclear ambitions.  In Cuba, we’ve given Castro cover for his communist failures. In Serbia, according to the London Observer, “Isolation has helped…to stoke paranoia, justify repression and escape responsibility for…suffering.”

As we enter this first war of the 21st century America should inventory her arsenal.    From IMF loans to airline landing rights, our weapons are diverse enough to target enemies without harming innocents and breeding hostility.  Sanctions are not to blame for the atrocity of September 11.  Moral responsibility belongs to bin Laden and his henchmen.  But our misguided policy handed him the grievance he needed to convert many to his anti-American cause.  Before we enlist more enemies on his behalf, America must acknowledge that sanctions are weapons of war and choose our targets with the utmost care. 

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