The Magazine


Dec 15, 1997, Vol. 3, No. 14 • By JOHN R. BOLTON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

YOU MIGHT THINK THE UNITED NATIONS would want to punish Saddam Hussein for disrupting and nearly killing the U.N.'s own efforts to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Instead, the U.N. Security Council last week effectively rewarded him. Not only did the council extend the misnamed "oil- for-food" program at current levels -- a loophole in the sanctions that lets Iraq export roughly $ 2 billion worth of oil every six months. It also offered him the prospect of increasing those sales and loosening the U.N. 's controls over the proceeds of those sales.

Thus, just six weeks after he barred Americans from participating in U.N. arms inspections, Saddam Hussein now has the best of both worlds: The U.N. ban on weapons of mass destruction is materially impaired, and the economic sanctions are in danger of collapse.

Saddam has won on both fronts thanks to an inattentive and erratic U.S. policy. Three weeks without U.N. inspections undoubtedly allowed the Iraqis to roll back months if not years of weapons-monitoring work by the U.N. Special Commission. That was ample time to disperse and conceal facilities for research, production, and storage of mass-terror weapons. Even worse, however, is the likelihood that the Clinton administration will, in the near future, accept a weakening of economic sanctions -- regardless of whether Iraq is subverting the work of the weapons inspectors.

President Clinton has found it rhetorically easy to concentrate on the clash over weapons inspections. Iraq's conflict with the U.N. inspection team was straightforward, easy to explain and understand, and highly visible. The mandate of the U.N. Special Commission is limited to the indisputable threat posed by weapons of mass destruction; its operations have little impact on Iraqi society at large; the global arms-control "community" understands and supports the U.N.'s efforts; and the inspectors have been highly successful since the end of the Gulf War in 1991.

By contrast, the economic sanctions are broad in their impact, diffuse in their implementation, and bluntly stated -- hard to get excited about. Nonetheless, and although far from perfect, the sanctions regime has materially impeded Iraq's ability both to rebuild its conventional military and to acquire weapons of mass destruction. The sanctions reinforce and support the work of the U.N. inspection teams by highlighting Iraq's continuing pariah status and its enormous uncertainty and risk as a commercial partner. With sanctions substantially lifted, Saddam's maneuvering room and options for purchasing weapons materials in world markets would be dramatically enhanced. The difficulty of preventing his acquisition of weapons of mass destruction would be magnified accordingly.

Saddam clearly understands the mutually supporting roles of the U.N. Special Commission and the sanctions; the Clinton administration, for its part, has been utterly unable even to articulate this point, let alone deal with it. Saddam also understands that sanctions have real enemies in the West. While many analysts deride sanctions generally as ineffective, Saddam has somehow succeeded in convincing much of international opinion that sanctions are causing terrible suffering to innocent Iraqis.

Thus, Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and now U.N. high commissioner for human rights, recently opined: "I want to bring to the public's concern the incredible suffering of the children and old people" caused by Security Council sanctions against Iraq. U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan essentially bought this line last week when he supported an increase in the permissible amount of Iraqi oil sales. Prominent conservative and liberal commentators in this country have agreed.

But this is nonsense. From the adoption of Resolution 661 on August 6, 1991, the U.N. sanctions have always expressly allowed Iraq to import medicines and food for humanitarian purposes. After the Gulf War, the sanctions were substantially eased, and they have been eased further (too far, in my view) by the various "oil-for-food" resolutions. There are not, and have never been, any international impediments to Iraq's attending to the humanitarian needs of its citizens, if it really wanted to do so.