rethinking sanctions compared to war

David Rieff wrote an important article in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine entitled, “Were Sanctions Right?” Rieff quotes Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who says that the sanctions “worked in the sense that [Saddam] was never able to rebuild his conventional army. When the war started, the Iraqi Army had no more than one-third of the strength it had possessed at the beginning of the first gulf war. But imagine that there had been no sanctions. Is it reasonable to suppose that the weakened Iraqi Army we just faced would have been so weak? I doubt it.”


If you want to put the worst possible spin on this statement, you could say that we starved the Iraqi people for ten years in order to prepare for an easy invasion, with few US casualties. I don’t know whether the Unicef estimate of 500,000 dead children is plausible, but killing even 5,000 kids is not exactly what valiant warriors do to prepare for battle. Furthermore, starving the population for ten years was not a good way to create a grateful and pliant citizenry for after the invasion. Iraqis blame Saddam, but they also blame the US, according to Rieff; and this is very understandable.

On the other hand, the question of sanctions cuts both ways. It was doves who said in 1990 and 1991 that we should “give sanctions a chance” before attacking Iraq militarily. Doves criticized sanctions in the mid-1990s, but they proposed no alternative way of removing Saddam. And then the French and Germans wanted to toughen sanctions in 2002 and 2003, rather than invade. Arguably, sanctions were a way for the West to confront Saddam at no cost to us–but at terrible cost to Iraqis. If that’s right, then an invasion was far preferable. We doves should ask ourselves whether our preferred policy was crueler than war.

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