Gordon, Joy, Invisible War, The United States And The Iraq Sanctions, Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press, 2010
If you want to learn about the United Nations sanctions on Iraq which lasted from 1990-2003 then Professor Joy Gordon’s Invisible War, The United States And The Iraq Sanctions should be on the top of your list. The U.S. wanted to use the sanctions to make sure Iraq could never rebuild its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and contain Saddam Hussein. Washington argued that it was Saddam’s fault that the sanctions lasted, that he abused the system, and that Iraq received all the basic necessities it needed all of which were false. In fact, U.S. policy devastated the people of Iraq and destroyed the economy.
Iraq faced the most comprehensive sanctions ever imposed upon the country. The embargo was created after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The country was especially vulnerable because it relied upon oil for almost all of its money and imported many of its basic needs. Its economy was also destroyed by the Gulf War which targeted infrastructure such as power stations and the sewage system. The sanctions were supposed to let in goods for “humanitarian circumstances.” Later the Oil For Food program was created which allowed Iraq to sell a set amount of oil to purchase products. What was considered humanitarian and what could be purhcased under the Oil For Food program were determined by the 661 Committee which was dominated by the United States.
The activities of the 661 Committee is the most interesting part of the book. The U.S. questioned nearly everything Iraq tried to import. The Americans applied the broadest interpretation of what could be considered a dual use product that might be used for WMD. It denied that there were any humanitarian needs initially and then tried to block anything that was not considered a humanitarian good. This included anything that might develop the economy or rebuild the country. It put holds on contracts which usually stopped them from ever going through. It would look at trade deals one by one and would often block a product that had been previously allowed.
The list of things that the Americans wouldn’t allow into the country are mind boggling. It stopped materials for tomato paste to be produced saying that would enhance the country’s infrastructure. It blocked salt from being sold to Iraq saying it could be used on leather and that would add to industry. It allowed the U.N. to administer a vaccine for a disease found in sheep and goats but then stopped the campaign the next year. It wouldn’t allow cranes or dump trucks to be sold to Iraq claiming they could be used for missile launchers. It blocked drilling and earth moving equipment meant for water projects because that would be rebuilding. Almost all trucks were banned along with rubber tires because they could be used by the military. It said yogurt machines might be used to grow viruses. It allowed shoes to be sold but not rubber to make shoe soles because that would be for production and not humanitarian needs. The list continued from fabric to electric irons to paper to women’s clothing to fans to aluminum foil and even burial shrouds although the last was eventually let in. The amount of contracts the U.S. put on hold grew to enormous proportions from $500 million in August 1999 to over $5 billion in May 2002. In the process of explaining the arbitrary system the U.S. created with the 661 Committee and listing all the things that Iraq could not buy it becomes immediately apparent that the country was not receiving humanitarian necessities and that the U.S. was intent upon destroying the economy which was not part of the U.N. mandate.
The author provides all kinds of figures on how Iraqis were negatively affected by the sanctions. Per capita income went from $3,510 in 1989 to $450 in 1996. GDP was at $66.2 billion in 1989 but only $10.8 billion by 1996. It’s estimated that Iraq’s lost income and productivity amounted to $265.3 billion from 1990-1995. The middle class was destroyed. Basic services like water, electricity and education were all a shadow of their former selves.
Another interesting topic discussed by Gordon was the controversy that the sanctions and Oil for Food program went through after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Americans constantly accused Saddam of manipulating the system for his own personal gain and then wasting the money upon non-essential things like building palaces. There were various investigations by the U.S. and the U.N. which found that Iraq was taking kickbacks from contracts under the Oil for Food program and was smuggling through the neighboring countries. At the same time the amounts were miniscule. For instance, Iraq received $229 million in oil surcharges and $1.55 billion in contract kickbacks. That was just 1.5% of all transactions. Iraq also smuggled oil worth $6 billion to Jordan and $800 million to Turkey which they should have been sanctioned for according to U.S. law. Washington gave them exceptions every year because they were important allies. The U.S. and England imposed retroactive prices on Iraqi oil to try to stop the smuggling. This meant that buyers agreed to buy Iraqi oil without knowing the price. It was then set after the month was over based upon world prices. The result was that Iraq’s petroleum exports nosedived because traders were not willing to enter into contracts with such uncertainties. That left barely enough money to maintain the Oil For Food program. Ironically the abuses of the sanctions became a huge issue in the U.S. with many politicians claiming this showed that the embargo did not work and Saddam was able to manipulate it. They had no real knowledge of how the sanctions worked nor their effects however. They were just playing politics with the issue.
The main point of the book was that the U.S. manipulated the sanctions to wreck Iraq while denying all of the negative effects. It claimed that the Iraqi public got all the necessities it needed while Saddam was the real culprit not cooperating with the U.N. and manipulating the system to enrich himself. While Iraq never worked openly with the weapons inspectors everything else Washington said about the sanctions was not true. It created a system where almost anything could be blocked for little to no reason. It knew about abuses and either did little about them or made the situation worse. As Gordon wrote the America’s main concern was containing Saddam and the sanctions would never end as long as he was in power. The White House under three administrations did not care at all about the Iraqi people and they suffered the consequences.
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