As this week’s Dialogue suggests, until recently there has been a virtual unanimity of national opinion on U.S. policy in Iraq. We must be vigilant, the argument goes, because (in a favorite analogy) allowing Saddam Hussein “out of his cage” would have devastating consequences for the region, potentially for the world. He has defied the United Nations in its righteous search for weapons of mass destruction, and only sanctions and the military power of “the allies” (now reduced to the bi-lateral twins: U.S. and U.K.) keep him from spreading war and pestilence once again. While it is true that the eight years of economic sanctions (which prohibit nearly all basic necessities from reaching Iraq) have caused suffering for the Iraqi people — by U.N. estimates, more than 1.5 million dead, more than half of those, young children — in the words of Secretary of State Albright, “We think the price is worth it.” Proponents of sanctions remain convinced that Hussein is diverting U.N. Oil-for-Food money to his own ends and ignoring the suffering of his people. As for the bombing attacks — now an almost daily occurrence barely noticed in the U.S. press — they are necessary to maintain sanctions and prevent the regime from rebuilding its military capabilities.
Hoping to determine how closely this version of events corresponds with the truth, last month the Observer helped sponsor the Austin visit of Denis Halliday, former U.N. Assistant Secretary General and Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, and Phyllis Bennis, of the Institute for Policy Studies. Last October, Halliday resigned his position to protest the sanctions; Bennis has written several books on the Middle East and the U.N. Prior to their well-attended presentation at the LBJ School, they spoke to the Observer at length about the current situation in Iraq, the background of U.S. policy, and the prospects for change. They sharply criticized the prevailing U.S. mythologies. Among their most important points:
• Rather than weakening Hussein, the sanctions and bombings undermine resistance and make him a sympathetic figure, not only in Iraq but in other Arab countries. (Iraq’s neighbors, presumably the chief beneficiaries of the military containment, recently called for an end to the bombings and a reconsideration of the sanctions.) “While, in Iraq, people understand that this is not a good or progressive regime, or one that they want to maintain,” Bennis said, “they are becoming more dependent upon it, through the sanctions program…. That’s not a recipe for trying to challenge the government. In the rest of the Arab world, where people might not be aware how repressive that government really is, what they see is that this is the man being demonized by the United States, and is standing up to them.”
• Rather than hurt Hussein or his regime, the economic sanctions strike directly at the civilian population, with devastating results. “Politically, Hussein cannot afford to starve his own people,” Halliday said. “The only constant thing in their lives is the food supply [and] there’s only a few months they get an absolutely full supply. We’re not talking fancy food; we’re talking basic wheat, flour, rice, tea, sugar, cooking oil, soap, lentils, beans…. And there isn’t a soul in Iraq who hasn’t seen a son or a daughter, a niece or a nephew, some relative, dying unnecessarily.”
• While the regime obtains some illicit funding — primarily, Halliday believes, smuggling of gasoline to Turkey and Jordan — there is little or no skimming of the Oil-for-Food program, because it is structurally impossible. Money from the permitted sale of Iraq’s oil is deposited in U.N.-controlled external accounts, and spent first for Kuwaiti reparations (30 percent) and U.N. overhead, and only then disbursed directly to contractors for commodities to be shipped to Iraq, under U.N. supervision. “I had 150 people reporting to me,” Halliday said, “who did nothing but observe the distribution system…. We interviewed at the warehouses, the mills, we were in the ports, we had a British agency at the ports (Lloyds of London) to monitor the distribution.…. I have no doubt that there’s no serious diversion of any large quantity.”
• There is no convincing military rationale for the current policy, and it remains in place largely for U.S./U.K. political reasons that make less sense every day. “Iraq is a stripped country,” said Bennis. “It has virtually nothing left of a serious military capacity. UNSCOM has said that in terms of weapons of mass destruction (as of a little over a year ago), that if the disarmament of Iraq was a five-lap race, we’d be three-quarters of the way through the final lap. This is not a country that exists as a military power.”
If there is any opposition to Hussein within Iraq, Halliday says, it comes only from younger, more militant factions, tired of submitting to U.N. demands and eager to strike back at the U.S. Now that the U.S. has declared sanctions may remain until Hussein himself is gone, said Bennis, it seems pointless to many Iraqis even to attempt to comply with U.N. weapons inspections. And while the perfunctory firefights grab an occasional heroic headline, the murderous sanctions persist. Halliday said a delegation of trade union leaders asked him to take a message to the U.N.: “For God’s sake, Mr. Halliday, can you tell the Secretary General, please send in the bombs, send in the missiles — just kill us, because under sanctions they’re killing us every day, and it’s hell.”
Concerning his resignation, Halliday said he simply couldn’t go on administering a policy he believes is designed to fail. In response to international pressure to end sanctions, the U.S. proposed “raising the ceiling” on Oil-for-Food from $8 billion to $10.4 billion per year — knowing full well the Iraqi infrastructure is incapable of producing more than $6 billion. The sanctions are a propaganda war in which the victors are hypocrites, and the victims — by the thousands — are helpless civilians. “The Iraqis are ordinary people like you and me,” Halliday told his Austin audience. “They are certainly not demons. [The most vulnerable] were not even born in 1991, at the time of the Gulf War.”
Those who insist that opponents of sanctions have fallen for Iraqi propaganda, should consider the findings of the World Health Organization: five to six thousand Iraqi children under five die every month as a direct result of economic sanctions.
Despite the apparent support for U.S. policy, particularly in the U.S. media, Halliday and Bennis find reasons for optimism in the response to their lecture tour, and in early signs of change in Congress. They have been well-received, particularly by religious groups opposed to sanctions, and are encouraged by a recent Congressional proposal, led by Michigan’s John Conyers, to end the economic sanctions and instead tighten military controls on Iraq. “It’s small, but it’s a start,” said Bennis. Halliday described his resignation as inevitable, in light of what he knew about the desperate conditions in Iraq; he hopes he can transmit that knowledge to others. “You have to live with yourself. After a certain point, as Noam Chomsky said, silence is complicity.”
A transcript of the interview with Denis Halliday and Phyllis Bennis is available on the Observer‘s web site, www.texasobserver.org. On March 23, Kathy Kelly of Voices in the Wilderness, a group which has transported medicine to Iraq in defiance of the sanctions, will be speaking in Austin, at the LBJ Auditorium, 7 p.m. We urge all Observer readers to attend.