America's Unyielding Policy Toward Iraq

Eric Rouleau. Foreign Affairs. Volume 74, Issue 1. January 1995.

The French are undoubtedly not alone among Europeans in their difficulty grasping American policy in the Middle East. Although clear in its objectives—at least those publicly defined—it invariably raises questions and sometimes suspicions. Part of the problem comes from cultural differences. The French, without necessarily being cynical, tend to be skeptical of the moralism that America traditionally attaches to its policies. General Charles de Gaulle raised no eyebrows in France when he declared, as a self-evident truth, that the primary purpose of the state, which he characterized as a "cold monster," was to defend the nation's interests. Nor did anyone take offense when he set down the rule—still observed—that France recognizes only states, and that the regime governing a state is not its concern. (One might note in passing that observance of this principle has spared France not only the diplomatic complications accompanying changes in regimes but, paradoxically, accusations of hypocrisy and double standards.) The notion that there are rogue states, then, has no equivalent in the French political vocabulary and continues to be a source of puzzlement. In European eyes, Washington's criteria for categorizing good and bad states would, if applied rigorously, significantly lengthen the list of the latter. Strangely, the guilty parties are almost all relatively small Middle East countries. Nor are these states, accused of similar human rights violations and threats to international security, treated similarly. Syria, to cite the most recent case, was honored with a visit from the president of the United States even as it continues to grace the list of "terrorist states," harbors organizations that subvert friendly countries such as Israel and Turkey, and constitutes a dominant and contested presence in a neighboring country.

The logic of the "dual containment" policy, however elegantly articulated by Anthony Lake of the National Security Council in the March/April 1984 issue of Foreign Affairs (which also carried a spirited refutation by F. Gregory Gause III), seems irrational. "Dual containment," Lake writes, "does not mean duplicate containment. The basic purpose is to counter the hostility of both Baghdad and Teheran, but the challenges posed by the two regimes are distinct and therefore require tailored approaches."

In a September 1994 speech, CIA director James Woolsey declared: "The record since [the Islamic revolution in] 1979 of Iranian behavior—to its own people and abroad—is appalling. At home, repression, violence, and terror. Abroad, efforts to undermine the states in the Persian Gulf, to derail the peace process, and to support Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations operating today from Nigeria to Tajikistan. Indeed, ran is the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism." Woolsey continues: "Iran's most important client, [the] Lebanese Hezbollah, has killed more Americans than any other terrorist group and receives support, training, and arms from Teheran... Hezbollah weapons have been discovered not only in the Middle East but in Europe and Africa as well." Besides terrorism, Woolsey accuses Iran of trying to build weapons of mass destruction, manufacturing and stockpiling chemical weapons, and trying to acquire pre-fabricated nuclear weapons as well as the materials and technology to produce such weapons. Meanwhile, the CIA director added, the regime "intimidates or threatens its neighbors in the Gulf."

In light of such an overwhelming inventory, Secretary of State Warren Christopher's complaints about the international community's indulgence of Teheran would appear justified, as would the American attempt to persuade Japan and the European powers to reduce trade with Iran. More difficult to reconcile is the fact that the United States itself is one of Iran's three principal trade partners, exporting (directly or indirectly) more than a billion dollars worth of goods to that nation in 1993; moreover, U.S. oil companies purchased and marketed a third of Iranian oil production. The United States stops short of selling arms and high-technology products to Teheran, urges Russia to follow its example, and tries to block international loans and financing for Iran. Yet these measures of containment, although modest compared to the crimes and black designs that the U. S. authorities attribute to the mullahs, are accompanied by a standing offer of reconciliation. Thus Lake wrote in this journal: "Nevertheless, the Clinton administration does not oppose Islamic government, nor does it seek the regime's overthrow. Indeed, we remain ready for an authoritative dialogue in which we will raise aspects of Iranian behavior that cause us so much concern."

Abandon Hope, Iraq


If Iran is consigned to purgatory, with some hope held out for redemption, Iraq has been irrevocably damned. The military and civilian leaders of Baghdad certainly must bear full responsibility for the savage destruction of Kuwait and the atrocities committed there. But the Iraqi people, who were not consulted about the invasion, have paid the price for their government's madness. Their latest descent into hell began with Operation Desert Storm in January 1991. Iraqis understood the legitimacy of a military action to drive their army from Kuwait, but they have had difficulty comprehending the Allied rationale for using air power to systematically destroy or cripple Iraqi infrastructure and industry: electric power stations (92 percent of installed capacity destroyed), refineries (80 percent of production capacity), petrochemical complexes, telecommunications centers (including 135 telephone networks), bridges (more than 100), roads, highways, railroads, hundreds of locomotives and boxcars full of goods, radio and television broadcasting stations, cement plants, and factories producing aluminum, textiles, electric cables, and medical supplies. The losses were estimated by the Arab Monetary Fund to be $190 billion.

If it is true, as Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told me, that then Secretary of State James Baker warned him during their stormy encounter in Geneva on the eve of the Persian Gulf Ear, "We will bomb Iraq back to the preindustrial age," Baker was as good as his word. But the United States may not have fully anticipated the scope of the economic consequences and suffering the war wrought. It was by all accounts appalling, at least in the months until repairs and reconstruction were finished. To take one example, the paralysis of electric power plants deprived Iraqis of drinking water, interrupted agricultural irrigation through pumping stations, and clogged the sewage system. Garbage and debris accumulated, rats proliferated, and epidemics spread. Hospitals without generators were unable to perform surgery.

Iraqi officials refer, with some bravado, to the "miracle" of the rehabilitation. Despite the mass emigration of foreign technicians and advisers and the shortages of raw materials, spare parts, and foreign currency, repairs were made in an astonishingly short time. Electric power stations were working in less than a year, most of the refineries within three months. It should be noted that the repairs are a bit chancy; they have been cobbled together with odds and ends or materials cannibalized from elsewhere. And Iraq has returned to a preindustrial era: its GDP is now lower it was in 1962, when its population, now over 18 million, was scarcely 7 million.

The collapse of Iraq's economy accelerated with the imposition of U.N. sanctions. Through some 30 U.N. resolutions and numerous other declarations and rulings, Iraq was put in a straitjacket: a multifaceted embargo, an air and naval blockade, two "no-fly" zones inside the country to protect (rather late, admittedly) the Kurds and Shiites after Iraqi forces put down their respective uprisings in March 1991, and a system of permanent surveillance to prevent attempts at nonconventional rearmament. This is to say nothing of the obligation to pay tens of billions of dollars in war reparations. Such draconian measures—and there are others—have no precedent in the post-World War II era, even though Iraq is not the only country to have been guilty of grave crimes. By their scope, rigorous implementation, and devastating effects on the economy and Iraqis' living and health standards and social fabric, the sanctions run the risk—despite Western intentions to preserve Iraq's territorial integrity of undermining the Iraqi state and, consequently, other shaky states in the region.

The Red List


For visitors who knew Iraq in happier times, it is astonishing to realize that it is possible to die of hunger in one of the world's richest countries, on land covering the largest oil reserves in the world, after those of Saudi Arabia. Theoretically, the Security Council has authorized the unlimited import of food and medical products, the so-called "humanitarian goods." But that has been nullified by the ban on all Iraqi exports, including oil. Export revenues are indispensable to purchasing these goods. Another paradox: Iraqi agriculture, thriving until recently, is collapsing due to shortages in fertilizer, pesticides, seed, and spare parts for agricultural machinery and transport trucks—all articles banned for import by the Security Council's Sanctions Committee. For most Iraqis, who cannot afford exorbitant black market prices, fruits and vegetables are entirely out of reach.

The Sanctions Committee's decisions are not subject to appeal, and it does not have to justify them. Each of the committee's 15 members (representing the countries of the Security Council) can veto import requests. Any one of them can thus reject an import request by Iraq or one of its potential suppliers, even if the 14 other delegates disagree. The American delegate raises objections most often.

The committee has banned more than 300 items using criteria whose logic is not always apparent. Some of the most inexplicable of the proscribed articles on the "red list," which continues to grow, are electric light bulbs, socks, wristwatches, ovens, spare parts for vehicles (including car batteries and tires), sewing machines and needles, mirrors, diskettes for laptop computers, nails, a wide range of textiles, grain mills, and refrigerators.

These bans have had unexpected consequences. Schools, for example, cannot function normally because of the scarcity of paper, textbooks, maintenance supplies, and pencils (the lead apparently has dangerous military uses). According to U.N. estimates, about one out of every five pupils has dropped out of school. Hospital patients now have minor surgery performed without an anesthetic, which is on the red list because its nitrate content has "military value." Seriously ill patients cannot be flown abroad for treatment since all flights have been suspended by the Sanctions Committee to ensure better enforcement of the embargo. The reasons behind other prohibitions—for example, spare parts for x-ray machines and scientific quarterlies—are even less obvious.

Before the imposition of the oil embargo in August 1990, Iraq imported food and medical products worth $3-4 billion a year. The revenue available today for those types of imports, including those arriving as contraband from Jordan, Turkey, and Iran, does not exceed a billion dollars. To economize, in 1993 the government cut food rations, which had been distributed almost free of charge. According to UNICEF, the calorie deficit among Iraqis is now putting at risk some 3.5 million persons, including 1.58 million children under the age of 15 and 230,000 pregnant or nursing women. Many children, it is believed, will be born mentally handicapped; the infant mortality rate, which has doubled in three years, will continue to rise.

One's natural indignation at the fact that Iraq's president and his entourage are entirely shielded from the embargo's devastating impact—special shops for high officials carry a wide variety of products and luxury goods unavailable elsewhere at heavily subsidized prices should in no way lessen the responsibility of the civilized world for reducing the Iraqi people's hardships. That much can be done without forsaking the minimal goal of checking Saddam Hussein's ambitions.

Squeezing the Baghdad Bourgeoisie


The two sources of hard currency that could have enabled Iraq to meet urgent needs have been removed, one on the initiative of the United States, the other by a decision of Saddam Hussein In September 1992 Washington persuaded the Security Council to freeze Iraqi bank accounts abroad, which for months had made possible the purchase of humanitarian goods. This measure, which put hundreds of millions of Iraqi dollars out of reach, was in a sense the Security Council's response to Saddam Hussein's refusal to take advantage of the sole exception to the blanket prohibition on exports. Security Council Resolutions 706 and 712 of August and September 1991 would have allowed Iraq to export $1.6 billion worth of oil (a small fraction of its pre-embargo sales), provided the United Nations strictly controlled the purchase, transport, and distribution of the humanitarian goods bought with the resulting revenues. Baghdad still refuses to abide by these resolutions on the grounds that they infringe on the sovereignty and dignity of Iraq—a cruel absurdity when one considers that Iraq is already under a virtual U.N. trusteeship.

The slow asphyxiation of the economy since the Persian Gulf War has brought about the collapse of the dinar and a cumulative inflation rate estimated at 5,000 percent over four years. Salaries, meanwhile, have remained virtually frozen. An entire month's salary of a midlevel functionary, for example, is needed to buy a kilo of meat, two months' for a pair of shoes. The middle class, created by Iraq's industrialization and welfare state, is disappearing. As a consequence, a number of improvised markets have sprung up on Baghdad sidewalks where a pauperized middle class—teachers, office workers, members of elite professions—comes to sell personal belongings, heirloom jewelry and art, kitchen utensils, valuable carpets, silver services, and television sets. Honesty has often given way to the instinct for self-preservation. Government corruption is almost institutionalized from top to bottom; crime has never been so widespread. Thefts, burglaries, and armed holdups are multiplying, while cooperation between criminals and police is reportedly not exceptional. Some businessmen, traffickers, and speculators, dubbed "profiteers of the embargo," have been growing rich in full view of the authorities. So-called Islamic measures taken by the government—the amputation of thieves' hands, the banning of alcohol in public places, the construction of mosques, among others—have not reduced crime or halted the decomposition of society.

In November 1993, two years after Resolutions 706 and 712, Saddam Hussein decided in desperation to comply fully with the conditions set by the Security Council to lift the embargo on oil exports.

It had already applied Resolution 687, which entrusted to the U.N. the mission to "destroy, remove or neutralize" the centers of nonconventional arms—chemical, biological, and eventually nuclear—as well as ballistic missiles with a range above 150 kilometers. The provisions of Resolution 715 which called for the installation of a permanent surveillance and control system to prevent any attempt at rearming, had not been met. A commission headed by the Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus recognized that the Iraqis had cooperated fully, making available all facilities to help install, to his full satisfaction, 187 observation sites. If the Security Council were to respect the commitment it had clearly made, the oil embargo would have been lifted immediately or, at most, after a probational period set by the Security Council.

Then the United States, backed by the United Kingdom, decided to "change the rules," as a New York Times editorial of August 2, 1994, put it. The Clinton administration decided that sanctions would remain in place as long as Iraq did not implement all the U.N. resolutions, particularly those concerning respect for human rights and recognition of Kuwait's sovereignty and borders. These new demands, however justifiable, did not appear in the sole U.N. text referring explicitly to the lifting of the oil embargo. Resolution 688, concerning human rights, and Resolution 833, concerning Kuwait's borders, make no mention of the oil embargo. Clearly, the United States deeply distrusts Saddam Hussein—who doesn't?—and is looking for ways to avoid implementing those provisions of the U.N. resolutions that would lift the embargo. But, if only in the interest of U.S. credibility, it would be more productive to respect the U.N. resolutions literal, with the proviso that the embargo and other sanctions would be restored if Iraq did not comply with further international obligations.

In November 1984, under pressure from Russia and France, Iraq recognized the sovereignty and frontiers of Kuwait. As expected, the measure, conceived as a political concession to the United States, was not judged sufficient by Washington. The prevailing sense in Paris was that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to change the mind of the Clinton administration, whose determination to follow its own policy had been clear in recent months, particularly since Iraq's military moves in October turned out to be futile (although extremely costly for the Persian Gulf) saber ratting. Washington, which had wanted a stronger Security Council resolution on Iraqi troop presence in the Kuwaiti border zone, had to compromise on a vaguer and less threatening resolution in order to set it passed. The next day, both the Clinton administration and the British government officially warned Baghdad that they would resort to force if Iraqi troops crossed the 32nd parallel. This unilateral step, taken without consulting the Security Council, is a good illustration of Washington's determination to press ahead, if necessary, against the will of the international community. U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright declared bluntly: "We recognize this area [the Persian Gulf] as vital to U.S. national interests, and we will behave with others multilaterally when we can and unilaterally when we must."

This declaration leaves a number of questions unanswered. What are the vital interests" that the United States must defend, come what may Are they different from those of the other great democracies? Shod not each of these states have the right to interpret and apply an international decision as it sees fit? In these circumstances, how can the cohesion and the credibility of the United Nations and the Security Council be preserved? These questions have not been publicly raised, but they belong at the heart of the debate on the new world order.

Already, differences within the Security Council have given rise to exchanges of a less than lofty level. A French minister suggested that the Clinton administration's unremitting hostility to Iraq was due to electoral factors, while American officials riposted that France's advocacy of a progressive lifting of the oil embargo could be explained in "mercantile" terms. Leaving aside the question of whether it is dishonorable for democracies to be concerned either with catering to public opinion or defending economic interests, this dispute was remarkable because it shifted the debate away from the pros and cons of maintaining the embargo indefinitely.

He Isn't Fading Away


To justify their sanctions policy, the Bush and Clinton administrations often made it understood—implicitly or explicitly—that their objective was to help overthrow Saddam Hussein. Western opinion, especially in the United States, rallied to this hard-line strategy without realizing how unrealistic it was: never in contemporary history have sanctions brought about the fall of a regime, however weak. On the contrary, experience has shown that sanctions often lead to the opposite result.

Iraq has not been the exception that proves the rule. It is widely agreed, even among the Iraqi opposition, that Saddam Hussein's regime is more secure today than it was four years ago. Successive purges within the armed forces and a tightened grip on the security services have led to the uncovering of a number of plots, real or imaginary. Reliable sources in Baghdad now maintain that the Iraqi people, absorbed by the daily struggle to survive the embargo, have neither the desire nor the energy to rise up against their government, which they increasingly perceive as a victim of a superpower's agenda.

Many Arabs and Iraqis, including members of the opposition, believe that the United States never intended to get rid of Saddam Hussein until a suitable alternative had been found. People in the region either are not aware of or give little credence to analyses set forth in postwar books and monographs alleging that Bush was misinformed about the damage inflicted on the Republican Guard, the elite units serving as Saddam Hussein's Praetorian Guard, that Bush was worried about going beyond the U.N. mandate, and so on. Even if these allegations could be proved beyond a doubt, the skeptics argue, the fact is that the United States and its allies remained passive throughout March 1991 as the Republican Guards savagely put down the uprisings of the Shiites in the south and the Kurds in the north. Protective measures by the United Nations were taken long after Saddam's bloody repression had crushed the dissidents in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces.

Illustrative of the state of mind of the Iraqi opposition, Dialogue, a London-based quarterly published by the "Public Affairs Committee for Shiah Muslims" of the Al-Khoei Foundation, recently carried an editorial which read in part:

All measures taken by the U.S. against Iraq so far are exclusively designed to contain Iraq's threat to the region but not to free the Iraqi people from the horrors of Saddam Hussein. Despite the no-fly zone, the drying of the marshes in southern Iraq (intended to crush the Shiah dissident population) was closely filmed by U.S. planes for more than a year without any attempt to halt it...the old misconception has prevailed yet again amongst U.S. policy makers: a weak Saddam is a better choice than a free Iraq... the U.S. failed [sic] the appeal to help by top Iraqi officers who planned to topple him in July 1983; it dampened initiatives to hold Saddam as a war criminal following the gulf war, and hence, on all counts, the U.S. chose not to finish the job.

Like most Iraqi opposition groups, this influential Shiite foundation has concluded that it is unjust to punish an innocent population for the crimes of a dictator over whom they have no control. On this basis, Dialogue advances two arguments for an immediate lifting of the sanctions: "Saddam Hussein has been the Number One violator of human rights in Iraq, but sanctions are in fact now causing more deaths and suffering than the regime itself...if the U.S. cannot or will not help the Iraqis to remove Saddam Hussein, then it must not prolong their suffering and damage their country in the 'indefinite sanctions alone' policy."

Al-Khoei also fears that the sanctions might be maintained even after an eventual change of regime to perpetuate American control over Iraq—despite the fact that the opposition has largely been well disposed toward he United States. Martin Indyk, then President Clinton's special assistant for the Near East and South Asia, undoubtedly contributed to this suspicion when he declared in a May 1993 speech: "We seek full compliance for Security Council resolutions for all Iraqi regimes. We will not be satisfied with Saddam's overthrow before we agree to lift sanctions. Rather, we will want to be satisfied that any successor government complies fully with all U.N. resolutions."

Bad Blood


Contrary to official declarations, American policy in the Persian Gulf is increasing malaise among America's allies. The leaders of the Gulf monarchies, except for Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, frequently share misgivings with European friends and sometimes with American diplomats regarding what they see as Iran's growing strength at the expense of Iraq, its traditional counterweight. The United States' direct involvement in the defense of their security, at the slightest alarm, embarrasses them and costs them dearly, especially since they also invest heavily in arms purchases of dubious usefulness. For these reasons, they would much prefer to return to the traditional policy of balance between the two regional powers, a policy whose effectiveness was clear for decades.

Turkey, meanwhile, feels betrayed by its American ally. The embargo has cost Turkey between $10 billion and $20 billion and continues to cause serious losses in a difficult economic and financial situation. The de facto secession of Iraqi Kurdistan—supported by the United States to the tune of a billion dollars a year—constitutes a potential threat to the territorial integrity of Turkey at a time when it is engaged in an implacable war against its own Kurdish separatists. While trying to convince Washington to soften the sanctions, the Turks are strongly tempted to go it alone to defend their vital interests. The European countries—foremost France—together with Russia are resisting this temptation even while trying to persuade the United States to cooperate with them and formulate a more coherent and less risky policy for the stability of the Gulf countries.

A More Reasonable Policy


The divergence between the Europeans and the Americans has far more to do with the means of solving the problem than with the core of the problem itself. The West should move beyond the immobility created by a policy based exclusively on sanctions to the dynamism of a multifaceted diplomatic action aimed at reaching goals. This strategy would be more in line with that applied by the Clinton administration to other states whose behavior it would like to change, such as China or North Korea. A consistent policy based on firmness is often more effective than an exclusive recourse to force or pressure.

Without attempting to suggest a diplomatic program for action, it might be useful to identify a few goals that stand a reasonable chance of being realized. One of these would be the implementation of Resolution 688 on human and minority rights, particularly concerning the Kurds. This resolution is not mandatory, so it could be applied only through negotiation. Baghdad, despite its relative weakness, has expressed readiness to resume the negotiations with Kurdish leaders that were interrupted in 1991 On the advice of Washington. The draft agreement drawn up at the time was undoubtedly unsatisfactory, but it did contain a few positive elements, such as reform of the constitution, and the introduction of a multiparty system and elections. The Kurdish leaders, now in a strong position, could demand guarantees concerning the implementation of a definitive agreement. Representatives of other Iraqi opposition movements could also embark on a normalization process. Baghdad's good faith would then be severely test.

Iraq's integration into the Middle East peace process is an objective that likewise seems worth considering. For all the justifiable skepticism in the West engendered by Baghdad's anti-Israeli rhetoric, not to mention the Scud missiles it fired at the Jewish state during Desert Storm to win Arab support, Western foreign ministries and certain high Israeli officials are well aware that Iraq for some years has aspired to a role in an eventual Arab-Israeli peace settlement. As far back as 1983, for example, Aziz told then-Secretary of State George Shultz that the Iraqis had no intention of being "more Palestinian than the Palestinians." In 1988, Baghdad did not oppose the decision of the Palestine National Council, the parliament of the PLO, to recognize implicitly Israel's right to exist. That same year, Aziz met secretly on a number of occasions with General Avraham Tamir, director general of Israel's ministry of foreign affairs, who later expressed his satisfaction at the Iraqi emissary's open-mindedness. (This meeting, as well as other secret contacts between Israeli and Iraqi representatives over the past few years, have been formally denied by Baghdad.) This summer, when I asked Aziz why his government had not reacted to the peace agreements concluded by Jerusalem with the PLO and Jordan, he replied: "We don't think we have any business getting involved in an affair to which we were not a party. Besides, there is no bilateral conflict between us and Israel; since our Arab brethren have decided to settle their disputes with Israel through negotiation, Iraq no longer considers itself a 'confrontation state'." The minister of information, Hamed Yusef Hamadi, was even more explicit: "Iraq is no longer a belligerent state."

The secret contacts recently established between Israelis and Iraqis, which reportedly caused unhappiness in Washington, indicate that Baghdad is prepared to pay the price for its reintegration into the international community. It would be a mistake not to put its sincerity to the test. It goes without saying, however, that no progress can be made if the Security Council does not at the same time show willingness to soften the sanctions via strict application of the U.N. resolutions. To avoid the drop in crude oil prices feared by Washington, the oil embargo could be lifted gradually to keep pace with world demand (the experts foresee an annual increase of a million barrels a day).

In so complex a situation, nothing is guaranteed. But it would be a pity to renounce the diplomatic means that alone can avoid the worst: a major humanitarian catastrophe for the Iraqi people, and the instability that an ongoing Iraqi crisis cannot fail to create in the region.