Today’s NY Times Magazine has an in-depth look at the Iraqi sanctions. It is one of the best things I’ve read on the subject. Most importantly, it explains one of the main reasons why sanctions in Iraq were so devastating, especially when compared with those in South Africa:

Before the conflict started, Iraq had imported roughly 70 percent of its food, medicine and chemicals for agriculture. Although its oil reserves, and hence its wealth, were virtually limitless, it was nonetheless a country that without international trade could not feed itself or sustain the modern developed society it was becoming.

Basically, Iraq could not engage in import substitution.” Without imports, they were deprived of everything — or at least 70% of everything. The impact of this was devastating:

American officials may quarrel with the numbers, but there is little doubt that at least several hundred thousand children who could reasonably have been expected to live died before their fifth birthdays.

This started in 1990 and went on till 1995, when the food for oil” program was first suggested, but these reforms were not implemented until 1997. Partially because Hussein took the weakening in support for the sanctions as an opportunity to fight for a complete lifting instead of a partial reprieve. The article states that it was in these two years that the worst human suffering in Iraq took place.” And yes, Hussein did exploit this suffering for his own political gain. But, once the plan was implemented, the US monitoring of dual use items” meant that many of the most basic items still didn’t get through.

Even shoes can be considered dual use’ items,” Albright told me, since it all depends on whether they are going to the general population or to the military.”

Although James Rubin is quoted as seeing the sanctions as a success because they prevented Hussein from re-building his conventional army, it is clear that the sanctions served to strengthen, rather than weaken Hussein’s rule. For one thing, the sanctions allowed the Iraqi government to select which foreign businesses they wished to do business with:

This provision meant that the Iraqi government was able to set up a well-orchestrated system of kickback schemes in which a contract would be signed at far more than the cost of fulfilling it, with the difference deposited secretly by the selected contractors in Iraqi government-controlled accounts all over the world.

As a result, the program was seen as a joke:

Although Saddam Hussein clearly exaggerated the effects of the sanctions, the 661 Committee was so hampered by American worries over Iraqi imports of dual-use materials, as well as by the patent corruption of the process, that it soon became something of a laughingstock — to everyone, that is, except the Iraqi people whose fate was so largely in its hands.

Moreover the rationing system ensured the loyalty of everyone to the government, because nothing was worse than loosing one’s ration card. And the secret service used the ration cards to maintain a central database that could be used to keep tabs on everyone…

Yes, Hussein clearly manipulated the situation for his own ends, but the way most Iraqi’s (and even former UN officials) see it:

As al-Alwan saw it, Iraq had been subjected to two sets of sanctions, those of the United Nations and those of Saddam Hussein himself. Voices outside Iraq echoed this perspective. Hans von Sponeck, the United Nations coordinator for humanitarian assistance in Iraq who resigned in protest in 2000, remarked bitterly to me in an e-mail message, Local repression and international sanctions became brothers-in-arms in their quest to punish the Iraqi people for something they had not done.”

So there you have it — the sanctions strengthened the regime, led to untold deaths, garnered international support for Iraqis and fueled anger at the US. But sanctions are still being used as bart of the tool box” of U.S. foreign policy:

In fact, the United States now has sanctions in place against about a dozen countries, including North Korea, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Syria and Libya. Just this month, Congress imposed a new array of economic sanctions against Myanmar after the military government in that country detained the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Of course, the South African case stands out, but the economic and political situation there were quite different:

To anti-sanctions campaigners, however, the South African case is the exception that proves the rule, rather than serving as a model for future confrontations with unsavory regimes. In South Africa, they point out, the humanitarian costs were low (South Africa was nowhere near so dependent on imported staples), and there was an effective and viable opposition in the African National Congress.

The article quotes many pro-sanction officials in an effort to be balanced, (so balanced that I wouldn’t be surprised if some people don’t read it as a pro-sanctions article) but in the end the case it makes against sanctions couldn’t be clearer.

Where things get murky, however is when it comes to containment.” For those of us who were against the war and advocating containment, it is necessary to think of alternatives. Sanctions were promoted as an alternative to war, but in many ways the consequences were even worse. It is unfortunate that thousands of years of human history don’t seem to have helped us come up with any more imaginative solutions to problems like these.

Note: CESR and other organizations fought long and hard against the sanctions. Here is a link to a 1997 report that they wrote documenting the effects of the sanctions on ordinary Iraqis. (PDF file)