Ten years ago this week, Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, launched the United States into what is now touted as the easiest and cleanest war America has ever fought.
Almost immediately following the close of the “efficient” Persian Gulf War, it was forgotten and left unaddressed by the media and country at large. But the U.S. government, under the auspices of the United Nations, has unfailingly continued its hostile policies through sanctions and, along with Great Britain, frequent bombings. This policy, explicitly aimed at undermining Saddam Hussein’s authority, has exacerbated the conditions of a suffering populace.
First, we must recognize the sanctions are largely a U.S. construct. Of the five permanent UN Security Council members, France, Russia and China have all voiced protest against the sanctions. It is the United States and Great Britain that push forth the sanctions and seek to ensure its continuation. The bombing campaign can also be credited to these same two countries.
From the onset, the United States chose to target the Iraqi water supply, sewage treatment facilities, irrigation systems and power grids. It is obvious these sites were not security threats, and their destruction only served to engender long-term devastation and societal damage for civilian Iraqis. Such efforts, coupled with a near-total embargo placed on the country one or two months prior to the war, continue today and have gone beyond subduing a “rogue state,” effectively disabling Iraq at all levels politically, economically and socially.
By 1998, former UN weapon’s inspector Scott Ritter attested Iraq was qualitatively disarmed. Even so, Powell, now Secretary of State-designate, claims, “We are in the strong position. [Saddam Hussein] is in the weak position. And I think it’s possible to re-energize those sanctions and continue to contain him and then confront him should that become necessary.”
Powell’s words fail to distinguish between Hussein and the Iraqi people; implicit in this articulated policy is the assumption Hussein is the target. But as many who have traveled to Iraq can testify, he and his allies in the ruling Ba’athist party have not suffered. Advancing the claim Hussein is the primary focus of this policy and that sanctions actually serve to “contain” him, an adversarial mindset like this one denies the human dimension of the current situation.
In fact, UN officials have recently estimated that over one million civilians, mostly children, have died since 1991 as a direct result of the embargo, and an additional 4,500 children under the age of five are dying every month. These deaths result from easily treated diseases such as diarrhea, cholera and other water-borne illnesses. Children also suffer from chronic malnutrition; this is in stark contrast to the pre-sanctions period where the foremost problem Iraqi pediatricians faced was childhood obesity. Now, the basic food basket is deficient in fruits, vegetables and most vitamins and minerals.
The sanctions ban many “dual-use” goods — goods that potentially have both civilian and military use. However, this overarching definition is problematic because countless materials in an industrialized country can be utilized to produce weapons of mass destruction. Despite this fact, the dual-use label has been extended to include items such as pencils and schoolbooks, medical supplies and medicines, all surgical instruments, computers and telecommunications, baby food, chlorine for water purification and ambulances. Under such restrictions, conditions in the country have rapidly deteriorated, and in urban areas, sewage runs freely because pipes cannot be imported to repair the damaged sewer systems.
It is only when a country is reduced to pre-industrial levels, a reality for Iraq today, the capacity to create weapons of mass destruction is fully eliminated. But also eliminated is the possibility of that society to exist in the most basic sense. This situation cannot continue. However, the sanctions have functioned for so long as an uncontested and familiar element of the U.S. policy it has become “integral.” Policymakers stubbornly refuse to see beyond Saddam Hussein and in doing so, ignore the faceless Iraqis who have died.
Ironically, these same victims are able to do what the U.S. government has not: Dissociate citizens from their government. Anthony Arnove, a journalist who has made frequent trips to Iraq, noted in his speech on campus Tuesday that the people, while crippled by the sanctions, received him warmly and with words of understanding. The Iraqi people, through their unspeakable suffering, have learned citizens are not responsible for the actions of their government. Can’t we, in similar fashion, do the same?
Nilofar Gardezi and Sarah Izfar are sophomores in Jonathan Edwards and Morse Colleges, respectively. They are members of Yale Students for the Children of Iraq, which can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.