Iraq Sanctions Panel
l to r: David Baldwin, Jon B. Alterman,
Meghan L. O' Sullivan and George Lopez

A July 17 panel discussion, organized by the Institute's Research and Studies Program, examined the effectiveness and lasting legacies of decade of economic sanctions on Iraq.


  • Jon B. Alterman
    Program Officer, Research & Studies Program, USIP
  • David Baldwin
    Ira D. Wallach Professor of World Order Studies
    Columbia University
  • George Lopez
    Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies
    University of Notre Dame
  • Meghan L. O' Sullivan
    Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Program
    Brookings Institution


Prof. Baldwin began the session with a general overview of sanctions. He stressed that sanctions should be seen as but one element of statecraft. Like other elements of statecraft, sanctions often have multiple goals. He argued that in any individual case, the success of sanctions is a matter of degree, and that the utility of economic sanctions must be judged in relation to the costs and benefits of alternative policies. The question, therefore, is not "Do sanctions work?" but rather "To what degree do they work, with respect to what goals, at what costs, and in comparison with what alternative courses of action?"

Turning to Iraq, our sanctions policy there seems to have had three stages: From August to December 1990, from 1991 to 1998, and from 1998 to the present.

In the first stage, our goals were to swiftly express condemnation of the Iraqi invasion, to demonstrate our resolve, and to preserve Kuwaiti assets. In addition, we sought to avoid triggering an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia, and win an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait. In this, US policy was successful on all but the last point, and it did so at relatively low cost.


In the second stage (1991-1998), we sought to use sanctions to promote compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 687. The UN introduced the Oil for Food Program to mitigate the human suffering caused by sanctions policy, although it languished for five years until Saddam Hussein agreed to its implementation. Bringing down the regime was never a goal of the UN sanctions.

Like the first stage, the costs of this stage were relatively low, and the Oil for Food Program was self-financing. Alternative policies to ensure that Iraq disarmed, such as a complete occupation of the country, may have been more effective in winning disarmament, but would have been far costlier to implement.

In December 1998, the US made a mistake by stating that regime replacement was a goal of US policy. Weapons inspectors were withdrawn later that month, followed by four days of aerial bombardment. The administration appears to have adopted such a policy because the costs of alternative policies (an occupation of Iraq, for example) were considerably higher.

In this third stage of Iraq sanctions policy (1998-present), the ruling elite has insulated itself from the effects of the sanctions, and in some cases is even benefiting from them. The human consequences of this policy are real. Yet who is to blame?


Saddam Hussein delayed implementation of the Oil for Food Program for five years, and has a history of long delaying the distribution of supplies. In any event, he can secure the lifting of sanctions tomorrow if he simply complies with the relevant UN resolutions.

In addition, while opponents of sanctions often decry their human effects, the potential victims of Iraqi chemical, biological and nuclear weapons are also legitimate objects of humanitarian concern.

If there is a way to target sanctions more at the leadership than the people, we should. But most proposals along this line tend to underestimate the difficulties in doing so, especially with regard to dual-use items.


Prof. Lopez argued that the utility of the present set of sanctions has been exhausted. In the absence of being able to move a successor to UNSCOM into place, we are moving away from a policy which uses sanctions as a way to controlling WMD toward a general policy of deterrence. Such a policy has been successful in the past against countries with more capabilities than Iraq has. Rather than advocate the complete dismantling of sanctions, Lopez suggested that they should be sharpened and accompanied by a full-blown, multilateral humanitarian policy.

Prof. Lopez noted that, in the Iraqi case, sanctions have bought a mid-level economy to its knees. Since April 1991, there has been an unprecedented economic calamity in Iraq. The economy has been set back at least three-quarters of a century. Two generations of Iraqis' lives have been fundamentally changed, but such a change has not produced political compliance.


In order for sanctions to be effective, he added, they must be part of a larger program of coercive measures. Since 1993, sanctions have been "the" policy rather than a component of policy. In addition, sanctions are rarely effective unless they are also combined with incentives. Indeed, the sanctions-incentives mix may be the key to a successful policy. The structure of UN resolution 687, which had far more provisions than any previous UN Security Council sanctions resolution, provided little room for incentives to reward partial Iraqi compliance with its provisions. The all-or-nothing approach understates great progress made in scaling back Iraqi capabilities in nuclear, chemical and ballistic weapons development.

Also, it is important to remember that sanctions have costs, and there comes a point at which the costs erode the leverage necessary to maintain the sanctions. In the Iraq case, this may have occurred as early as 1996.

Prof. Lopez suggested, in conclusion, that the overall strategy toward Iraq must be reexamined, and a balance reestablished between sanctions and other elements of statecraft. The utility of sanctions internationally is jeopardized by the failure of sanctions in the Iraq case.

More generally, we have learned that sanctions will only work if they are part of a larger policy, and if they are narrow and limited. Finally, Prof. Lopez appealed for lifting comprehensive trade sanctions, yet maintaining control over military and dual use technology and continuing to isolate the petroleum, diplomatic and business communities. Financial controls should also remain in place. In other words, the world community should adopt a "smart sanctions" approach to effect change in Iraq.


Dr. O'Sullivan suggested that sanctions on Iraq did not provide the expected leverage for at least two reasons. The first is the regime's pointed indifference to the suffering of its people. Second, the elaborate smuggling network established with regime complicity funded regime activities, consolidated regime control and insulated the leadership from the deprivations of sanctions.

Saddam has also been able to manipulate the international community, giving him hopes that he can "outwait" the sanctions. He has played the humanitarian suffering card quite well, and his multibillion-dollar debts to France and Russia have given him leverage with permanent members of the Security Council. Both France and Russia have signed contracts with Iraq to carry out commercial activities when sanctions are lifted, giving them incentives to lift the sanctions sooner rather than later, and disincentives to push for regime change.

Sanctions must be viewed as a tool, not a strategy, but sanctions have been used all too much as a substitute for strategy, to the neglect of other tools like diplomacy, military force, and covert action, all of which have been used poorly in the Iraq case.


Among the lessons of the Iraq case is that previous conceptions of sanctions have been flawed. We had previously thought that imposing enough hardship on a population will lead either to a revolt, or pressure on a leader to step down or change his policies. Such has not happened in Iraq. If we have to revisit the idea of how sanctions work, we need to think more about how to target sanctions, and how to incorporate a bargaining mechanism within the sanctions structure.

On the multilateral front, we have to understand that the UN framework for sanctions against Iraq is what has kept them in place for so long. Multilateral sanctions can be imposed by regional organizations (like the sanctions against Burundi) or by an ad hoc collection of countries, but such arrangements do not have the durability of sanctions imposed by the Security Council, since few countries want to openly flout their UN obligations.


Looking forward, we have to think more about how targeted countries will respond to the imposition of sanctions. Perhaps one explanation for the longer-range problems of sanctions on Iraq is that they were never intended to last for a decade. Still, factors like Iraq's outstanding debt to Russia should have been foreseen and addressed early in the process.

We also need to put greater emphasis on other tools. Sanctions cannot do everything, and they are especially ill suited to achieving very ambitious aims. Finally, we need to give great attention to enforcement. Even if the sanctions are 95 percent effective, the five percent leakage will almost certainly go to the targeted regime and help prolong its rule.

Looking forward on the Iraq case, we need to pay more attention to coalition maintenance, and do more to curtail smuggling. There is a role for our European allies here to speak with Iran and convince the government that enforcing sanctions against Iraq is in our mutual interest.

The bottom line of any new policy toward Iraq is that no resources can flow to the leadership until an UNSCOM-like organization has given the country a clean bill of health.

In addition to that bottom line, we should put in place a policy that alleviates human suffering in Iraq, weakens the support base for the regime, and builds up the coalition to contain Iraq. In this regard, we should examine four possible changes to policy: to consider allowing consumer imports; consider allowing foreign oil companies to invest in Iraq, provided that resources are kept away from regime; focusing on improving the civilian infrastructure; and exploring ways that more humanitarian supplies can reach the general population. In regard to the latter, we should try to find a way out of putting contracts under the Oil for Food Program on hold, perhaps by establishing a structure to monitor how such supplies are used. We also might think about how international aid agencies could execute contracts in Iraq so that the domestic situation improves but money is kept away from the regime.

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