The Common Good
March-April 1999

No More Sanctions, No More Bombing

by Jim Wallis | March-April 1999

United States policy toward Iraq needs a radical change.

United States policy toward Iraq needs a radical change. We move from crisis to crisis with only two responses: bombings that threaten to kill thousands more civilians and comprehensive sanctions that perpetuate the suffering and death of children. We need better choices.

I agree with those who believe that Saddam Hussein is a real threat and his potential for using chemical and biological weapons is a great danger to countless numbers of people. But continuing to bomb and starve the children of Iraq will neither remove him nor his weapons of mass destruction. Continuing that policy is both politically counterproductive and morally unacceptable. Biblical ethics do not allow for a policy that causes such massive and unnecessary suffering to innocent children, especially when the declared political goals of such a policy are unobtainable. From a religious or humanitarian perspective, to continue our present policy is wrong.

The harsh economic sanctions imposed on Iraqi civilians for the past seven years are now resulting in 4,500 deaths of children each month, according to U.N. studies. Secretary General Kofi Annan reports that one-third of Iraqi children are now malnourished. Hundreds of thousands of children under the age of 5 have now died since the end of the Gulf war in 1991. Those numbers are unconscionable. While Saddam Hussein is indeed culpable for his people's suffering, it does not relieve the responsibility of those imposing sanctions. Children are dying in large numbers, directly due to our policy in Iraq.

More bombing just worsens the problems caused by lack of clean water, sanitation, food, and medicines. Do we honestly believe that raining bombs on the heads of already beleaguered people will turn them against their dictator and toward those doing the bombing? The unilateral U.S. and British military strikes also threaten to unravel the international consensus against Saddam. There is every indication that Saddam is provoking further confrontation with the United States to bolster his own weakened position. What's needed now is a new policy to undermine the dictator but protect the people.

WHY NOT TRY SOMETHING very bold? Immediately lift the economic sanctions against Iraq, not out of any deal with Saddam, but out of an expressed commitment to ease the burdens of the Iraqi people. Surprise them and the rest of the world by replacing the feared air raids with welcome airlifts of food and medicine to those most in need. Such an action could also help undermine Saddam Hussein. The Bible says, "If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads."

Then tighten the international arms embargo on military weapons and technology so stringently that not a bullet or spare part gets through to Saddam's decaying army. Let it rust away. Current military sanctions have already proven successful in diminishing Iraq's military capacity and threat, and those nations who want to see economic sanctions relieved, like France and Russia, could be challenged to help strengthen a strict arms embargo in return. Show we're serious by imposing secondary sanctions against any nation who violates the arms embargo, and make the effort to effectively monitor the borders and transit points between Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Iran to make sure that nothing of any military value gets into the country. That will take a real effort, but less than bombing Iraq. Support the democratic opposition to Saddam's regime and fill the Iraqi airwaves with honest information and hope instead of filling their skies with deadly laser light.

There has been little coverage in the mainstream media of the effect of the economic sanctions on the Iraqi people. By and large, the American people are unaware of the devastating consequences of our policy. But this evil is being carried out in our name. It is time for public education, honest information, and informed debate. Pressure must be applied upon the media on all levels to cover the tragedy in Iraq. Saddam Hussein's manipulations, lies, and arrogance are not the only story in Iraq today. The suffering of the Iraqi children is the other story that now must be told.

It's unfortunate that the United States, last summer, voted against the kind of international tribunal that could be used to try and convict the Saddam Husseins of the world. Exposing and isolating dictators is one way of undermining their power. Perhaps the U.S. opposition comes from our own past support of dictators, including Saddam Hussein, to whom we supplied weapons for our own political reasons. The United States declares its own righteousness against Iraq with a hollow sound.

Our policy in Iraq is guilty of violating the gospel warning against "seeing the speck in your neighbor's eye, and ignoring the log in your own eye." If the United States wants to gain some real moral authority in calling Iraq to task for its weapons of mass destruction, we could begin by dealing with our own. How can we avoid the charge of hypocrisy and double-standards as long as we refuse to allow any moral scrutiny of our weapons of mass destruction? Real progress on ridding the world of these terrible weapons will continue to elude us until the United States and the other superpowers begin to lead by example. Now that would be new moral leadership and a radical change indeed.

The world has a legitimate conflict with Saddam Hussein, but it's time to end our war against the people of Iraq. To counter the threat of weapons of mass destruction, we are now dangerously close to participating in mass murder. When suffering reaches these proportions, we can no longer remain silent.

The dangers Saddam Hussein poses should not go unopposed. It's our responsibility to find a better way.

But it's important that the faith and peace community not make its own mistakes in this moral crisis.

  • It's a mistake to underestimate the evil or threat of Saddam Hussein, or to remain silent about it. I've heard the arguments that our responsibility is only to protest our own government's evil, or that the United States is responsible for Saddam's sins, or that "demonizing" Saddam Hussein gives fuel to U.S. bombing raids against Iraq. I understand those sentiments but believe they are mistaken. Saddam Hussein's evil and threat is very real, and needs to be resisted by those who believe in peace. Who will take responsibility if one of Saddam's missiles armed with anthrax or deadly nerve gas strikes Tel Aviv, killing thousands of Israeli children? We're as responsible for protecting Saddam's victims as we are for protecting the children of Iraq. We should make careful distinctions between economic sanctions devastating civilians (which we should oppose) and arms embargoes that undermine Saddam's military capacity and threat (which we should support).
  • It's a mistake only to criticize U.S. policy and refuse to criticize those on the other side of U.S. power. Some said it was a mistake to criticize the Sandinistas when Nicaragua was enduring the U.S.-sponsored contra war. That, it was argued, would just give further justification to the U.S. war policy. But that argument was wrong, as is the one today from the U.S. peace community that protects Saddam Hussein. The Sandinistas were responsible for serious mistakes and violations of human rights, which led to their downfall no less than U.S. aggression did. To oppose the contra war, or the bombing and sanctioning of Iraq, must not prevent us from criticizing the Sandinista regime or the much worse dictatorship of Saddam.
  • It's bad theology to suggest that all of the evil in the world stems from the United States. Such a view is implied by some statements from the American peace movement. As the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth, and the primary enforcer of the world order that protects its status, the United States is culpable for a great deal, but not everything. Let's courageously oppose the United States for protecting the unjust distribution of the world's wealth, for its own policies that support the violation of human rights in many places, for leading the world in arms sales and proliferation, and for maintaining the world's largest arsenal of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

    But let's not blame the United States for all the trouble and evil in the world, and for every dictator, terrorist, greedy capitalist, or rogue state. Our biblical theology doesn't allow for that. We want to be known as those who love the gospel, not as those who hate America. And when the United States plays a positive role somewhere in the world, such as in the Northern Ireland peace process, let's be willing to acknowledge that. If we show evenhandedness and independence in our pursuit of peace, our authority and credibility will be even greater.
  • Finally, let us in the peace movement tolerate no "party line" when it comes to complicated situations like Iraq. Peace requires the pursuit of truth, and that truth is not always easy to find. Honest discussion among those who believe in peace is critical to finding the best path. Even if we oppose the bombings and economic sanctions against civilians, there are still difficult questions to resolve. How do we deal with someone like Saddam Hussein? How do we separate economic sanctions from military ones? How does the international community protect Saddam Hussein's neighbors and even his own people from his deadly behavior? How do we oppose Iraq's weapons of mass destruction without falling into hypocrisy by not challenging our own? To find good answers to these questions, we will need each other.

JIM WALLIS is editor-in-chief of

Sojourners. A portion of this column appeared on the MSNBC Web site.

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