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Professor pitches hard-line sanctions policy toward Iraq

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

While Washington reconsiders its strategy for Iraq, Michael Rubin, professor of history and visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is pitching a hard-line agenda to the American public and policymakers alike: Retain sanctions. Contain or remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Opponents of sanctions say Rubin’s analysis has obscured the complexities of the Iraq picture and the source of Iraqi suffering. Propelling their debate is the question, “What direction will the United States take in Iraq?”

Since his return from Iraqi Kurdistan in mid-June, Rubin has argued against softening sanctions in a radio interview and two articles published in the New Republic.

The Yale lecturer, whose area of expertise is 19th-century Iranian reform literature, spent nine months teaching in the three northern governates of Iraq. That region, he observed, is experiencing sanctions very differently from the southern and central parts of the country. The infant mortality rate has dropped below pre-war levels. Unemployment remains high, but “the stores and pharmacies are well-stocked.” Even Haagen-Dazs ice cream is available. “The key point,” he notes, “is that it is the same sanctions administered throughout every part of Iraq.”

Rubin, who did not visit southern and central Iraq, argues that discrepancies between the two regions can be attributed to a single variable -- the Hussein regime. In the North, the United Nations oversees implementation of the Oil for Food program, but in southern and central Iraq the program is administered by the Iraqi government.

Initiated in December 1996, Oil for Food allows Iraq to export oil and use a portion of that income to buy basic goods from other countries. The remaining revenue is used for Kuwaiti war reparations and to cover U.N. administrative costs. Iraqi oil earnings are kept in a U.N. bank account in New York and cannot be spent without the approval of the U.N. Sanctions Committee, which evaluates Iraqi proposals for import contracts, submitted every six months. If these are deemed legitimate, funds are released.

Critics of sanctions say that “holds” at the United Nations have prohibited Iraqis from obtaining vital commodities such as blood bags. Rubin says the problem lies entirely with Baghdad. “Most of the revenue from the Oil for Food program has not been spent by the Iraqi government,” says Rubin.

Contesting U.N. reports linking Iraqi suffering to sanctions, Rubin admits there is a humanitarian crisis in southern and central Iraq. The solution, however, is not to remove or alleviate sanctions but to “bypass Baghdad” and let the United Nations deal with the distribution of goods. “Right now, under Oil for Food, Baghdad has to order the medicine. Let the United Nations buy the medication, instead.”

But economics professor Colin Rowat argues against attributing North-South differences in Iraq to a single factor. “Monocausal explanations that blame Saddam Hussein for the whole difference” between the two regions, Rowat says, “are simplistic.”

Rowat who received his doctorate from Cambridge University, England, is a former member of the university’s Campaign Against Sanctions in Iraq. He visited southern and central Iraq for two weeks last December but did not travel in the North. “I think that one can recognize the benefits that have accrued to Iraqi Kurdistan this past decade and one can seek their continuance without oversimplifying the issues.”

“There are a number of factors,” says Rowat, that distinguish the Oil for Food program in the two regions. They include agricultural differences -- northern Iraq has always been the agricultural heartland of the country -- and differences in funding. The North receives 22 percent more per capita from the Oil for Food program and about 10 percent of all U.N.-controlled assistance in currency while the rest of the country receives only commodities.

The lack of a cash component in southern and central Iraq “cannot be underestimated,” says Rowat, who cites recent U.N. reports urging the Security Council and the Iraqi government to come up with a mechanism for providing one.

“Unless civil services can be paid -- something that may require a cash component -- doctors, teachers, nurses, engineers, et cetera will not be able to work properly in Iraq,” he said.

Iraq’s current problems, he adds, “have more to do with the state of the civilian infrastructure and the capacity of the civil service than the distribution and supply of goods.” The country’s transport and communication systems have collapsed, and the “electrical sector, which was badly targeted during the war,” remains in ill repair.

This has “downstream consequences,” he says. “Without electricity, you can’t operate pumps, which means you can’t sanitize water.”

Rubin says investment in Iraq is a good idea in theory, but wonders how you could get the dollars into civil society. “Most big business is carried out by political leaders. What are you going to do if confiscation of property occurs?”

Rubin offers several proposals for dealing with Hussein’s regime: 1) Set up a Commission of Experts -- the second step in the establishment of a war crimes tribunal -- to determine if there is enough evidence to indict Hussein. Rubin’s time in the North familiarized him with Hussein’s persecution of the Kurds, and he is confident that many would come forward to press charges. 2) Retain sanctions in the South, under U.N. administration but lift sanctions for the people in the North who “have fulfilled their obligations.” And lift the arms embargo for them as well. 3) Bolster no-fly zones to include no-drive zones, “similar to what we did in Kosovo.”

Prohibition of tank movement would be enforced from the air, says Rubin, so there would be “no commitment of American ground troops.”

“If the people above,” meaning Kurds in the North, “or below,” meaning Shias in the South, “want an uprising, fine,” says Rubin. “Why shouldn’t we let the Iraqi people express themselves? What the people of Iraq want,” Rubin later adds, “is a free and democratic Iraq” and he believes they would support any political leader the Americans wanted. He finds it strange that “we in America would prevent the Iraqi people from taking up arms.”

In the lexicon of Washington policymakers, Rubin is a proponent of regime change -- a strategy backed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a former member on the Board of Advisers for the Washington Institute of Near East Policy. Regime change, as defined by Rumsfeld, “is a more militarily aggressive policy that emphasizes increased support for the Iraqi opposition. It is overtly aimed at overthrowing Saddam Hussein if not the Iraqi regime,” says Washington analyst Phyllis Bennis.

Rubin’s views are shared by other members of the Institute of Near East Policy. The conservative think-tank that provides policy papers for congressional representatives and members of the National Security Council has long argued that the real problem in Iraq is Saddam Hussein. In an op-ed article for The Washington Post, published Feb. 27, 2000, Michael Eisenstadt, senior fellow at the institute, wrote, “Only when Washington ships weapons will Middle Easterners judge the U.S. to be serious about getting rid of Saddam Hussein.”

Within the Bush administration, the Iraq discussion has yielded hotly contested debates between proponents of regime change and “smart sanctions.” The latter, a policy endorsed by Secretary of State Colin Powell, proposes alleviating some of the restrictions on economic sanctions and is considered to be the more moderate position within the Bush administration.

Because Powell’s proposal for smart sanctions failed to pass the U.N. Security Council in late May, the hawks “are pushing for a more aggressive agenda of regime-change,” says Eric Gustafson, executive director of Education for Peace in Iraq. “They are pushing it,” he adds, “at the expense of other policies.”

“Everyone would love to see a regime change in Iraq,” says Gustafson. The question is, “how will it come about? Michael Rubin is arguing that democracy can come from 50,000 feet in the air. He needs to point to an example where that has ever happened.”

Gustafson, who favors the removal of economic sanctions and the strengthening of Iraqi civil rights, says that ironically “we have strengthened the authority of Baghdad” by imposing sanctions on the Iraqi people. “Fundamentally, the U.N. has to rely on the Iraqi government to run the [Oil for Food] program. It’s just way too large. The Iraqi people are now dependent on that rationing system, which creates a new vehicle of control. But what is the fundamental characteristic of a democracy? A population that is not dependent on central power.”

National Catholic Reporter, August 10, 2001