Dr. Joy Gordon’s new book examines the human costs of the United Nations’ sanctions against Iraq – and the role of the United States

by Carolyn Arnold

On August 12, 1991, the United Nations Security Council voted to impose economic sanctions on the nation of Iraq led by Saddam Hussein.

The purpose of the sanctions, at least on paper, was to first force Iraq to withdraw its invading force from Kuwait and then, in subsequent years, to force Iraq to allow United Nations (U.N.) inspectors to conduct searches for indications of a possible nuclear or biological weapons program within Iraq.

While all of this is well known, what is not so commonly discussed is the scale of humanitarian crises that these sanctions, which remained in place until 2003, had on the people of Iraq. There was widespread malnutrition, along with the collapse of every major system needed to sustain human life in a modern society. Some have estimated that as many as 500,000 children may have died as a result of the conditions. Many are unaware of the intense political pressure that the U.S. brought to bear on the U.N. to shape these economic sanctions, at a time when there was little resistance to U.S. political aims.

Dr. Joy Gordon, professor of philosophy in the College of Arts and Sciences, explored these complex political and international relationships when she wrote Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions. Published by Harvard University Press in 2010, Dr. Gordon’s book examines the economic sanctions that were placed on Iraq from 1991 to 2003 and the nations and international institutions that made it possible for the harshest sanctions policies ever to be imposed by the international community.

The book is a critique of the United States’ foreign policy and has attracted a lot of critical attention. It has been listed by Foreign Policy, the U.S. magazine of politics, economics, and ideas, as one of the 10 best books on the Middle East for 2010. It has also received glowing reviews from the London Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, Huffington Post, and the National Catholic Reporter.

Andrew Cockburn wrote in his London Review of Books, “[T]he sanctions against Iraq drew only sporadic public comments, and even less attention was paid to the bureaucratic maneuvers in Washington … which ensured the deaths of half a million children, among other consequences. In her excellent book Dr. Gordon charts these in horrifying detail.”

Dr. Gordon, who received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale and a J.D. from Boston University, began work on the book nearly a decade ago when it was originally intended to be a case study on the ethics of economic sanctions in Iraq. As she began to read the internal documents of the Security Council, the case study became more involved.

“It turned out the documents told a very different story – a story about how the U.S. exerted enormous influence over the U.N. Security Council, in the juncture after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when there was no longer a counterweight to the U.S.”

While working on the book, Dr. Gordon, who has testified before Congress regarding U.N. sanctions, discovered that much of the information she wanted to examine was not readily available. “It was a long process of following up on leads from many sources, everything from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to tracking down documents in obscure archives,” Dr. Gordon said. In addition, she interviewed many diplomats and U.N. officials to learn about the workings of closed Security Council meetings.

During the time that sanctions were imposed very few goods were allowed into or out of Iraq. Dr. Gordon said, “Initially the sanctions, among other things, blocked food – for a country that imported two-thirds of its food.”

Some nations viewed sanctions as a comparatively benign form of political pressure, a way of compelling a rogue nation to comply with international law by restricting its economic growth, and isolating sectors of its economy from international trade.

But many scholars and foreign policy experts have come to the conclusion that sanctions, while politically attractive, are often ineffective. Dr. Gordon said, “In many cases sanctions do not achieve compliance from the targeted state. There’s often backlash – the civilian population in the targeted country will ‘rally around the flag,’ and defend their leader in the face of what’s viewed as an attack from the outside.” All of these were factors in the case of Iraq.

Ultimately, Dr. Gordon said, “economic sanctions are a form of strangulation.” With the Cold War over, the Soviet Union was replaced by a much weakened Russia, leaving the U.S. in a position to impose its will. It was then possible to achieve a consensus within the Council that approved the most comprehensive sanctions in the history of global governance.

Page 1 of 3 | Next page