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Invisible War: How Thirteen Years of US-Imposed Economic Sanctions Devastated Iraq Before the 2003 Invasion

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While the US invasion and occupation of Iraq over the past seven years has inflicted multiple disasters on the country, many argue that the US assault on Iraq really began twenty years ago with the US-imposed economic sanctions. Joy Gordon, author of Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions, writes, “U.S. policymakers effectively turned a program of international governance into a legitimized act of mass slaughter.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The US invasion and occupation of Iraq over the past seven years has inflicted multiple disasters on the country. But many argue that the US war against Iraq really began more than twenty years ago. In August 1990, the UN Security Council imposed economic sanctions on Iraq in response to its invasion of Kuwait. The United States was instrumental in imposing and keeping the sanctions in place until May 2003. While they had a devastating impact on Iraq and its people, the sanctions are often overshadowed by the 2003 US invasion when pundits examine US policy on Iraq.

Our next guest writes of the sanctions, quote, “U.S. policymakers effectively turned a program of international governance into a legitimized act of mass slaughter.” Joy Gordon is a professor of philosophy at Fairfield University and author of the new book Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions. She joins me now from Fairfield University in Connecticut.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Joy Gordon. Can you take us back to 1990, how these sanctions were put in place, and what effect they had on Iraq over the thirteen years that they were held there?

JOY GORDON: Sure. The sanctions were imposed in August of 1990, so almost exactly twenty years ago, after Iraq had invaded Kuwait. The sanctions were almost completely comprehensive. They precluded Iraq from any imports and any exports, with very limited exceptions. They allowed medicine, and they allowed food, quote, “in humanitarian circumstances.” But that phrase wasn’t defined. In fact, what happened for the first eight months is that within the Security Council committee that maintained the sanctions — it was called the 661 Committee, after the resolution. Each country had veto power. It operated by consensus. And for the first eight months, the US, accompanied by a couple of others, but absolutely the US, would not even allow Iraq to import food. This is a country that had been importing two-thirds of its food. There was a fight, for example, that went on for weeks and weeks over whether or not Iraq could import a shipment of powdered milk, and the US opposed that just intransigently.

After March of 1991, after the bombing of the Persian Gulf War, Iraq was allowed to import food without restriction, but the real problem was infrastructure, because in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the US-led allied forces bombed all of Iraq’s infrastructure — water treatment plants, sewage treatment plants, telecommunications towers, roads, bridges. The country was reduced to a dysfunctional country in every regard almost overnight. UN envoys going into Iraq reported that Iraq has been reduced to a preindustrial country. One described the situation as “near apocalyptic.” And it was that combination of things, the massive bombing of all infrastructure combined then with the sanctions, that made it impossible for Iraq to ever recover. It was reduced a level of development from a sophisticated country with a very high standard of living to a country that was, in the words of the envoy again, a “preindustrialized country.”

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Joy Gordon, what effect did the sanctions have on things like mortality, on public health, on education?

JOY GORDON: The sanctions — again, this is in combination with this initial devastation of all of Iraq’s infrastructure — the impact was enormous. Child mortality spiked, increased by 250 percent. A country that had had negligible levels of things like cholera and typhoid, those were off the charts. There were epidemics of waterborne diseases that never really came down. The bankrupting of the state, which was one of the direct goals of the sanctions, had enormous consequences, as well, because all fundamental public services in Iraq were centralized, were dependent on the state. Food had been available in markets prior to the sanctions, but under the sanctions, the state instituted a rationing system. And according to all the UN agencies and NGOs that commented on this, they said that was the single factor that prevented famine in Iraq. But it was a state-run process. So when the state was bankrupted by the sanctions, because they could not export oil and they could not import equipment for the country to function, the result was that all public services collapsed, as well. Even the ration system started to decrease. Teachers and doctors lost wages, lost salaries. And there was a mass exodus of engineers, professionals, everything you need to run the country at a fundamental level.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And the estimates that at least half-a-million children were killed as a result of these sanctions?

JOY GORDON: It’s called the excess child mortality figure, which is — which means, really, how many children under five died during sanctions who would not have died without the sanctions. And that number is highly contested. The Iraqi government claimed one thing for a while; other groups claimed things for a while. But in the end, if you look at the best data and the most reliable data, it seems that it must in fact be over half-a-million children under five were dead as a result of sanctions. A medical demographer who has done the most thorough study of this puts the estimate at somewhere between — I think it’s 660,000 and 880,000 children under five who died as a consequence of the sanctions. And remember, that’s just children under five, because those are more easily measurable by epidemiologists. But that would include an unmeasurable number of persons over five, of the elderly, of the sick, and that would be in addition to this somewhere between half and three-quarters of a million children under five.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And how was it that the United States were able, along with Britain and the rest of the Security Council, were able to keep these sanctions in place? They became — quickly became unpopular in the face of the effect they were having on Iraq. How was it — how were they able to keep it in place? And what specific items were banned from being imported to Iraq?

JOY GORDON: They were kept in place and they were maintained at such an extreme draconian level by a couple of different mechanisms. First, for Iraq to have permission, have a humanitarian exemption, to import any single item, other than food and medicine, initially, there was a committee of the Security Council, the 661 Committee, and it operated by consensus. So you had to have consensus, the agreement of every single member of the Security Council, for every single humanitarian exemption. In effect, the US —- for the first few years, a few countries banned goods, but really, after the mid—'90s, it was almost entirely the US. About 95 percent of the denials of goods were on the US side. The other maybe five percent were British. But it was overwhelmingly US unilateral action. Even the British did not join the US in this. And the US unilaterally blocked essentially everything Iraq needed for its infrastructure — electrical generators, food-processing equipment, telephone systems.

The US used as its criterion dual use, but then, if you look literally at that term “dual use” and you say, “Well, what are all the things that a civilian economy uses that a military also uses?” the answer is everything. Everything. Electrical generators, cars, tires, plywood, glass, glue — all of those things are things that the military uses. All of those things are also things that any normal civilian society uses. The US took the position that all infrastructure was dual use and, on that basis, blocked all infrastructure, with virtually no exceptions, for over a decade. And that was really what was profoundly damaging. It wasn't just the absurd things that the US blocked, of which there were many — yogurt-making equipment, dental equipment. At one point, someone from the Pentagon came before the 661 Committee with a vial of cat litter, and he said, “This can be used to stabilize anthrax,” suggesting on that grounds that the 661 Committee should be blocking everything up to and including cat litter. So, there was, at one point, someone within the US — this process of deciding what items to block or not, he was overruled. But he argued that Iraq should not be permitted to import eggs on the grounds that the yolks of the eggs could be used as a medium in which to grow viruses, which in turn could be used to produce biological weapons. So that was the — that was very typical of the reasoning on the US side.

But the real damage was the infrastructure. The US, for example, finally allowed Iraq to import a sewage treatment plant, which was desperately needed. Three hundred thousand tons a day of untreated sewage were going into Iraq’s rivers, causing epidemics, again, of waterborne diseases, triggering increases in child mortality from dysentery. So, the US finally agreed that Iraq could import a sewage treatment plant, but then blocked the electrical generator needed to run it, on the grounds that an electrical generator was something that the military might be able to use, and therefore, to be in some sense on the safe side, it was prohibited, as well. And if you do that, if you cripple the infrastructure of a country, that’s a death sentence on a massive scale. And that’s exactly why you would have half-a-million, three-quarters of a million young children dead as a result, along with a general public health catastrophe. Seventy percent of Iraqi women were anemic. Thirty percent of Iraqi children were malnourished. And on and on and on.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Joy Gordon, finally, put this all in context of the situation in Iraq right now. After thirteen years of sanctions, the war was launched, following by the US invasion and occupation. How did the sanctions play a part in determining Iraq’s fate in 2010?

JOY GORDON: Well, Nir Rosen was talking about how Iraq has been reduced to a preindustrial country. But I think we saw that already the case. We saw exactly a lost generation. There was a delegation of staffers, of congressional staffers, who went to Iraq in, I think it was, August of 2000. And they wrote a report, which they circulated widely throughout Congress. And in it, they had a quote from the head of UNICEF, who they had met with when they were there. And she said, if the sanctions are not lifted — the sanctions are resulting in such a profound isolation, such a profound collapse of education of any kind, of the possibility of equipping and training an entire generation to be competent, to have a sense of themselves in the world, to have any sense of a future. She said, “There will be a generation, or more than a generation, that will not be able to recover from this, and that will be very dangerous.” That quote was included in a report that was circulated to nearly every member of Congress in the year 2000. So, none of this is surprise. It was documented constantly throughout the '90s, beginning quite literally in March of 1991. It was — this information was completely well known within the Security Council, and it was documented by the most reputable NGOs in the world, by UN agencies, constantly. Everyone knew that Iraq was collapsing. Everyone knew that there would be a lost generation, that there would not be the means to sustain the fundamental conditions of life needed for just a decent human life.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We're going to have to leave it there. Joy Gordon is a professor of philosophy at Fairfield University, author of Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions.

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