The Common Good
March-April 1998

What To Do About Iraq?

by David Cortright, George A. Lopez | March-April 1998

The Moral Dilemma of sanctions.

Massive bombing of Iraq, which at press time was a very real threat, is not the only moral issue in the confrontation over Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. The continuing economic sanctions against Iraq pose an excruciating moral dilemma.

On one side is a brutal dictatorship that has attacked its neighbors, abused its own people, and repeatedly frustrated the work of U.N. weapons inspectors authorized under Security Council Resolution 687. On the other side is an inflexible and inhumane policy of near-permanent sanctions, imposed by the Security Council and held in place through the pressure of the United States and Great Britain.

Caught in the middle are the people of Iraq, who suffer doubly under the oppression of a totalitarian government and the grueling consequences of seven years of comprehensive economic sanctions. Caught in a different crossfire are those who support the goal of eliminating Iraq's deadly weapons but who cannot accept the victimization of children or the bombing of innocents as the "collateral damage" of achieving these ends.

Sanctions are an imperfect instrument. They can encourage a process of dialogue and negotiation, but they cannot by themselves remove a targeted regime or force a drastic change in policy. They should never be used to starve an opponent into submission. Sanctions work best in combination with incentives as part of a "carrots and sticks" diplomacy designed to resolve a conflict through negotiation. This means that partial concessions by the target should be reciprocated with an easing of pressure.

Baghdad has made gestures of compliance with Security Council resolutions: In November 1993 accepting permanent U.N. monitoring facilities on its territory, and a year later recognizing the redrawn international borders with Kuwait. Unfortunately neither of these actions was reciprocated, and Iraq has received little incentive for further cooperation.

The Security Council's refusal to reciprocate Iraq's partial concessions suggests that the political goal posts have been moved. Resolution 687 stipulates that the ban on Iraqi exports will be lifted when Iraq complies with U.N. weapons inspections. However, in March 1997 Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared that the U.S. government no longer agrees with this position.

THE LARGER objective of the sanctions has become to impose political and military containment on Iraq. This is implicit in the many statements from U.S. officials that the sanctions will not be lifted until Saddam Hussein is removed from power. In November 1997 President Clinton remarked that "sanctions will be there until the end of time, or as long as he lasts." Under these conditions sanctions have lost the "carrots and sticks" leverage so crucial to their effectiveness. Absent any incentive to cooperate, Baghdad has relied on a strategy of confrontation, attempting to wear down U.N. resolve and widen the political differences within the Security Council.

U.N. diplomats are increasingly concerned about the severe humanitarian impact of the sanctions. Many also doubt the marginal utility of maintaining comprehensive sanctions so that weapons inspectors can pursue every last element of Iraq's weapons program. Despite Iraqi obstruction, the U.N. Special Commission has successfully eliminated many of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Even Albright has called the progress achieved to date "stunning." Baghdad's nuclear capabilities have been eliminated, its previous SCUD missile force is gone, and "significant progress" has been realized in eliminating chemical weapons. To be sure, serious questions remain about biological weapons, but these cannot be resolved through purely punitive sanctions or bombing. Incentives must also be offered to reach a negotiated solution.

The key to a diplomatic settlement is "a grand bargain" that combines the U.N. goal of strict adherence to the terms of Resolution 687 with the Iraqi desire for a specific timetable to lift sanctions. The latter would occur only with specific, and probably incremental, Iraqi commitments to fulfill the terms of Resolution 687. The process could begin with a partial lifting of sanctions based on the compliance that has been achieved to date. The arms embargo should remain in place, however, along with continued restrictions on nuclear technology and materials. As called for by Secretary General Kofi Annan, the humanitarian "oil for food" program should also be expanded until the medical and nutritional needs of the Iraqi people are fully satisfied.

If Iraq still refused to comply with weapons inspections, sanctions would have to remain in place. If Baghdad were to accept the proposed bargain, the long Iraqi ordeal could finally end in a way that upholds legitimate U.N. objectives while relieving the suffering of the Iraqi people.

DAVID CORTRIGHT is former executive director of SANE and president of the Fourth Freedom Forum. GEORGE A. LOPEZ is senior fellow at the Kroc Institute for Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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