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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 necessities.

“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 them?

“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.

Media Contacts: William Haddad at 657-278-3712 or
Valerie Orleans, Public Affairs, 657-278-4540 or