“Is the Price Worth It?” The Crippling Effects of U.N. Sanctions in Iraq

Mack DeGeurin
Sep 2, 2018 · 10 min read
Economic Sanctions are widely used by governments to pressure foreign regimes, but tucked under the surface are immense human costs to civilians. Photo courtesy Al Jazeera.

An Iraqi mother peeks through her black and gold embroidered hijab to gaze upon her child dying in her arms. The malnourished toddler lies motionless — his eyes shut, his skin pale. The words of 60 Minutes correspondent Leslie Stahl can be heard playing over the video. “We have heard that half a million children have died,” she says, referring to the effects of the U.N. sanctions effort in Iraq. Pausing for a brief moment to regain her thought, Stahl continues, asking then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “Is the price worth it?” The camera pans to Albright, who responds in a tempered diplomatic tone, “This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.” For Stahl, this historic interview would result in an Emmy award and wide journalistic praise. For Secretary Albright, however, her choice of words would spark a heated response from swath of the Arab world and would reinforce a narrative of anti-US sentiment festering since the very inception of the Iraq sanctions.

This choice of words by the United States’ first female secretary of state would send waves of public outcry through Iraq and the greater Arab world for the following days, weeks, and months. Albright’s defense of the sanctions policy and admittance of its civilian casualties is not enough alone, however, to explain the deep seated distrust felt by Iraqis of the American government. Much of the Iraqi sense of alienation from the US government can be traced back to the US refusal to support revolting forces in Iraq during the failed 1991 uprisings. Despite far reaching radio messages from President George H. Bush suggesting a full US backing of rebel fighters, opposing Iraqi forces found themselves abandoned and left to their own demise upon launching their attacks. US planes watched overhead as Saddam Hussein regime helicopters gunned down rebel fighters with ease. From this moment forward, the future implications of the US led United Nations sanctions on Iraq would be veiled with a sense of distrust from the Iraqi people, who it seemed more and more symbolized mere pawns in a larger game of political chess between the full force of US diplomats and the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Several months after her remarks aired on 60 Minutes, Secretary Albright visited the Israeli Arts and Science Academy in Jerusalem where she answered questions from a collection of Israeli and Palestinian students. Her harsh diplomatic stoicism still fresh in their mind, Albright was met with criticism by several students. One of the attendees, sixteen-year-old Palestinian student Zahra el-Aker noted her distrust of the American diplomat’s feeling towards Arabs saying, “It was like she was calling us all terrorists.”

Other critics of Albright, however, featured fewer degrees of civility. Mixed within the analytical criticisms of Albright’s seemingly indifferent tone when speaking about Iraqi civilian casualties and the US’s neglect to properly address humanitarian concerns resulting from the prolonged sanctions, were a slew of attacks on the secretary targeting her female identity and supposed jewish ancestry. US news outlets, like the Los Angeles Times, swiftly condemned such criticism, denouncing the attacks on Abright as misogynist, anti-semitic, and inaccurate. This sentiment was shared vocally by members of the US State Department, whose spokesman Glyn Davies called Arab backlash against Albright, “biased and reprehensible.”

Though some of the criticism directed at Albright was surely laced with unsavory sentiment, the US press condemnation of criticism towards the Albright in totality failed to address the real underlying feeling of distrust and anger felt by a large group of people as a result of US foreign policy measures. As Joy Gordon notes in her book, Invisible War, one of the greatest catalysts of this anger seems to have arisen through the US and Albright’s perceived unwillingness to share the burden of responsibility for the deaths resulting from the sanctions. The United States deflected culpability, and held strong to the position that the Hussein regime was, “flatly responsible for whatever suffering there was.”

Five years into the sanctions, with Iraq’s economy crippled, (Iraq’s GDP had fallen from $66 billion to $10.8 billion) it appeared some modest relief would come to the Iraqi people through the first UN Oil-For-Food-Programme. The proposal would permit “Iraqi emergency oil sales of $1.6 billion over a six month period,” to pay for food and medicine imports. This modest appeasement to help combat the deaths of as many as 576,000 Iraqi children, as a result of malnutrition and contaminated drinking water, was immediately used as political leverage by the United States, who spoke through Albright claimed, “they very much wanted [it] to succeed,” but delayed its passage in fear of Hussein manipulating the deal for his own benefits. Many western news outlets echoed the State Department’s narrative and criticized the Oil for Food Program saying that it conceded too much to the Iraqi dictator. David Sapsted of The Daily Telegraph reported on the event writing, “The world has welcomed back Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after he agreed to a United Nations forged oil-for-food deal which will lift sanctions imposed after his troops invaded Iraq.” This specific example underlines a larger more pervasive fault of the sanctions which was that the US was effectively waging a war of economic attrition with Saddam Hussein and in this war the Iraqi people were treated as dispensable. The social uproar over Secretary Albright’s statements exemplified an irreconcilable disconnect between two cultures. For Albright and American viewers at home, the sanctions in Iraq were a clean bloodless tactic used to free a distant people from a tyrannical leader. To the Iraqi people, however the reality of life under the sanctions was vastly different.


From the onset, Iraq was especially vulnerable to economic sanctions. UN Resolution 661 declared that, “all [member] states shall prevent the import into their territories of all products originating in Iraq or Kuwait.” This resolution, blocked, “More than 97 percent of imports and 90 percent of imports,” from Iraq, according to Gordon. While any sanctions imposed of this magnitude are bound to deal an economic blow, these aggressive policies indiscriminately affected non military exports with their broad definitions.

Before the invasion of Kuwait, Iraq rooted its economic foundation on imports and exports. A rentier state by design, Iraq received nearly all if its wealth through foreign oil sales. Oil exports at the time represented around 60 percent of Iraq’s gross domestic product and nearly 95 percent of its foreign currency earnings. From the US perspective, attacking Iraq’s oil exports and thus their economy looked the most practical way of pressuring the Iraqi dictator out of office. Tied into this attack on Iraq’s oil, however, was the blocking of food to the Iraqi people. Before 1990, 70 percent of Iraq’s food resources came from imports. Under resolution 661, U.N. member states were prohibited from selling foodstuffs to Iraq with the exception of, “humanitarian circumstances.” This section of the resolution in effect required U.N. member states to withhold food sales to Iraq until the conditions of mass starvation and malnourishment constituted a viable humanitarian crisis.

Similarly problematic for the Iraqi people was U.N. Security Council’s definition of “dual-use goods.” The term in question refers to products that can be used for both humanitarian aid and the production of military equipment-a category that the Iraqi case study would prove can extend to nearly all category of products. While sanctions were in place, the U.N. interpretation of dual-use good would lead to blocks on, child vaccines, water tankers, and in one case, even salt. One of the more controversial, and certainly most damaging interpretations of dual-use goods by the U.N. involved the restriction of chlorine sales to the Iraqi government. Chlorine is a primary agent used in water treatment facilities around the world to kill bacteria. Subsequently though, the chromium compound is also a primary agent in the creation of certain chemical weapons. (Indeed reports have confirmed that the Hussein regime not only possessed the means to produce chlorine based chemical weapons in the past, but in practice deployed them during the Iran-Iraq War.) Because of this, U.N. member states were prohibited from selling chlorine to Iraq, a decision which would yield horrifying results.

Without the proper means to treat its water, Iraq began experiencing a surge in diseases previously eradicated within its borders. Estimates of typhoid in Iraq measured 11.3 per every 1000 people before the implementation of sanctions, according to Gordon. By 1994, that number had increased to more than 142 per 100,000. Similarly, pre-war levels of cholera were non existent. By 1994, however, 1,344 Iraqis out of every 100,000 were subjected to the fatal bacterial disease.

Andrew Cockburnm, in his bok Out Of Ashes, notes the state of Iraqi civil society pre sanctions. Prior to the passage of Resolution 661, the Iraqi nation featured, “lavishly equipped hospitals,” and “medical care as good as could be found in Europe of the United States.” By the end of the 1970’s Iraq had received an award from UNESCO for its campaign to eradicate illiteracy. Before the implementations of sanctions, over 80 percent of the nation regularly drank safe, clean, drinking water, child mortality rates were comparable to European nations and Irai children had access to a nearly universal primary school education. For all intensive purposes, Cockburn writes, 1989 Iraq was, “a rich modern city.”

The combination of sanctions and coalition bombings resulted in the destruction of nearly half of Iraq’s infrastructure by 1991. Telecommunications, agricultural development, and electrical power sustained crippling blows. Neither the initial military attacks or the subsequent economic sanctions on their own would have been enough to bring Iraq to a place of irreparable damage, however the synchronized implementation of the two meant that the key industrial facilities hindered by bombing would never be able to rebuild while sanctions remained in place. In Gordan’s book, Martii Ahtisaari, the Under Secretary General for Administration and Management for the U.N. at the time of the sanctions said of the sanctions affect, “the recent conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results upon the economic mechanized society…Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre industrial age.’”

The sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council transitioned the state of Iraq from a modern developed state to a “third world” nation in the historical blink of an eye. This vision to completely reimagine the Iraqi state did not, however, have the backing of most, or even a majority of U.N. member states. The specified requirements as mandated by the international community to cease sanctions on Iraq demanded that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait, implement disarmament, and provide information and access to U.N. inspectors. Though the Hussein regime consistently squabbled with UNSCOM investigators, by 1995, when the the first Oil-for-Food Program was still being negotiated, the conditions required to lift sanction had been met at least in part. Despite this, sanctions remained largely unfettered. This prolonged implementation of economic sanctions even after Iraq met U.N. requirements was a direct extension of U.S. foreign policy aims-aims which Madeleine Albright publicly professed while Secretary of State.

The Human Cost of Regime Change

Under the Clinton Presidency, Albright made clear the US’s own requirements of Iraq before lifting sanctions. Unlike the U.N. position which focused on disarmament, the United States prioritized the removal of Saddam Hussein and the promotion of a new Iraqi government. In addition to a request for regime change, the U.S. required this new Iraqi government be, “independent, unified, and free from external influence.” Albright would go on to openly break from the international community on this point, saying, “We do not agree with the nations who argue that, if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted.”

The public outcry that echoed throughout the Middle East following Albright’s utterance of the words, “I think the price is worth it,” came at a time when Iraqi’s had seemingly lived two lives in two different worlds-one before sanctions and one after. While western media coverage of the reaction may project critical objections to the sanctions as a naivety, or even a subversion to the Hussein regime itself, this does truly consider the Iraqi perspective. Facing a world ravaged by hunger, poverty, disease, and political turmoil, Iraqis in the 1990’s were searching for someone to blame. Many Iraqis had lived through the rise of the Ba’ath party, they had lived through and seen Saddam’s brutal acquisition of power, and they had lived through the uncertainties of the Iran-Iraq war. None of these events, tumultuous as they were, could compare with the basic shift in everyday life for an average Iraqi following the US led U.N. sanctions. While Secretary Albright’s statements may rub a western viewer the wrong way based solely on the language used, to Iraqis and many in the Middle East already critical of the United State’s foreign policy efforts, her words solidified a perceived reality that had been developing through years of turmoil.

Though Albright defended her stance and comments for several years after the fact, the former Secretary of State has sinced walked back her statements in part. In her 2003 memoir, Madam Secretary, Madeleine Albright apologized for her choice of tone and language but maintained her assertion that the crux of the blame for Iraq suffering still lies with Saddam Hussein. Albright wrote;

“I must have been crazy; I should have answered the question by reframing it and pointing out the inherent flaws in the premise behind it. Saddam Hussein could have prevented any child from suffering simply by meeting his obligations…. As soon as I had spoken, I wished for the power to freeze time and take back those words. My reply had been a terrible mistake, hasty, clumsy and wrong. Nothing matters more than the lives of innocent people. I had fallen into the trap and said something I simply did not mean.”

The sanctions policies imposed by the United Nations following Iraqi’s invasion of Kuwait re-directed the fate of an entire nation and its effects can still be felt today. Thoguh sanctions remain a generally accepted form of pressure used by the international community to bring uncooperative governments to the negotiating table, the bear immense suffering. Given the proven human costs of the Iraqi sanctions and seeing how this destabilization has played out in the longer term of foreign affairs, should this same strategy be applied to other import heavy, dictatorial states such as North Korea? One need only observe nighttime satellite imagery to see the gross lack of electricity and industry available to the common North Korean citizens as a result of political corruption at home and rigid economic sanctions abroad. Gruesome as these type of governments are, it’s unclear how effective sanctions are as a political tool.

The question remains, its answer though may rely at least in part on a critical evaluation of the sanctions effect on Iraq, the first true case study observing the violence of economic warfare.

Mack DeGeurin

Written by

Texas expat, freelance journalist. Work has been featured in New York Magazine, Motherboard and Medium. I’m on Twitter @mackdegeurin

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade