December 16, 2004 :: No. 106
History Professor Explores Human Cost of Sanctions
For 12 years, the United States and Great
Britain applied economic sanctions against the nation of Iraq. Initially,
the sanctions were started in 1990 by the United Nations, ostensibly
to drive Iraq from Kuwait.
“When that goal was achieved in 1991, most countries
wanted to lift or revise the sanctions because of the terrible toll
they were taking on the Iraqi people,” says William Haddad,
chair and professor of history at Cal State Fullerton. “The
United States and Britain opposed ending the sanctions, and this
12-year opposition contributed to the suspicion and anger that many
Iraqis feel toward American policy today.”
In his new book, “Iraq: The Human Cost of History,”
published by Pluto Press, Haddad, in collaboration with Tareq Ismael
of the University of Calgary, looks at the price that ordinary Iraqi
citizens had to pay because of these sanctions.
“The average Iraqi was often forced to live
in horrific conditions based on these draconian sanctions,”
Haddad explained. “Prior to the Gulf War of 1991, they lived
in a relatively modern society, heavily dependent on electricity.
In 1991, we bombed many non-military targets — for example,
electrical distribution centers and generating plants, waste disposal
and water purification centers, factories. The result was that Iraq
went from being an industrial country to a preindustrial state,
but one still heavily dependent on a vanished electrical supply.
“The justification for this was if we cut off
vital supplies of food and medicine, the people would rise up and
get rid of Saddam Hussein,” Haddad said. “However, that
didn’t happen. Instead, the government began to distribute
vouchers for food and medicine —much like the war rations
that the United States issued during World War II.”
Rather than creating a resistance to their leader,
the sanctions only served to reinforce Hussein’s position
of power, since he alone controlled the distribution of life-giving
“Since the government controlled the food and
medicine, the government decided who would receive it,” said
Haddad. “Those at the top certainly didn’t suffer. Of
course, the regime made it very clear that there were limits on
these necessities because America and its allies were blocking them.
This, needless to say, created a great deal of animosity toward
America and real suffering. In one study, the United Nations determined
that 3,000 Iraqis per month were dying prematurely because of the
sanctions, mostly from a lack of medicine and polluted water.”
So, if the sanctions served to strengthen Hussein
and harm the average Iraqi, why didn’t the United States stop
“I think our leaders were often reluctant to
revise or take another look at sanctions,” Haddad said. “In
a well-known interview that Lesley Stahl conducted with Madeleine
Albright, who was then U.S. ambassador to the U.N., she asked, ‘More
than 500,000 Iraqi children are already dead as a direct result
of UN sanctions. Do you think the price is worth paying?’
Albright responded, ‘It is a difficult question. But, yes,
we think the price is worth it.’ And this was after only five
years of sanctions.”
Haddad hopes that readers of his book will come to
understand how important it is to revisit policies that are clearly
not working…especially if the innocent suffer as a result.
“I think in many ways Americans are quite naïve
about their standing in the world,” he said. “We often
don’t pay much attention to how our policies impact others.
We’ve become disengaged from the world community.
Why were we surprised when the Iraqis didn’t
greet us with open arms? They blame us for a dozen years of suffering.
We are right to turn power back as quickly as possible to the Iraqi
people but, quite frankly, I don’t think we’ll ever
see a Western-style democracy there. While it’s laudable,
it’s certainly not practical.
“Finally, if we’re going to impose sanctions,
we need to be aware of the human cost — we’ve impoverished
the Cuban people; we impoverished the Iraqis. Today, we need to
ask ourselves, ‘Are the sanctions against North Korea working?
Cuba? Did they work against Vietnam?’ I think we always need
to reconsider the use of sanctions in the face of such dire suffering
and not be afraid to withdraw them when it becomes apparent that
they aren’t producing their intended results.”
Haddad has been a member of the Cal State Fullerton
faculty since 1987 and holds a Ph.D. from Ohio State University.
||William Haddad at 657-278-3712
Valerie Orleans, Public Affairs, 657-278-4540