Sanctions: A Chapter Excerpt from 'Iconoclasm'


When trying to instate ‘invisible war’, sanctioning becomes a key component to the aggressors arsenal. These policies often enact an embargo upon imports to a nation, an economic barring from global trade, or a limitation to accessible goods and services on the international level. This may include the import of food or medicine, ability to take on international loans, or GDP export to world markets.

There are two implications for large scale sanctioning.

One is that an international hierarchy must exist. It is more reasonable to consider that a major world power like the United States, European Union, Russia, or China would be able to convince the global community into sanctioning a smaller nation than the inverse. Uganda would have a much more difficult task forcing sanctions upon the US than vice versa, implying that the larger and more economically impactful nations of the world have a larger say in what nations are sanctioned and why. While globalized relations and trade aim to promote a means of equality amongst nations they still struggle with this established-determinative quality. Major Public Forums like the United Nations offer a seat to each of their member nations, yet it still seems that with such things as sanctions there is a heavily tiered scale of national importance.

This brings the discussion to a second point, which is the advertised purpose of sanctioning. A key purpose behind the exclusion and reprimanding of sanctioned countries is moral in nature. A repressive country with an Authoritarian, dictatorial, Theocratic, or unstable climate is often in the firing line. International sanctioning is meant to goad a repressive or violent government into progressive action or reform, essentially blackmailing them to initiate a change in policy or government. To make such an ultimatum there must be a moral default that is established by dominant countries that have access to sanctioning others easily. The global standard for morals and etiquette is consequently limited to a select few dominant nations, who then have the ability to impose their will without the use of weapons.

Rather than inspiring an even keel of cultural and systemic discussion, sanctioning often has the ability to stunt sociopolitical growth in developing nations. While the concept of Democracy may be foreign to a small developing nation, heavy sanctions can actually cause a dismissive backlash toward the global community and make the transition toward progressive government a much longer process. The limiting of essential goods, ability to travel, and general antagonization toward the citizenry of an entire nation can translate into extremist sentiments that often turn zealous.

Such was the story of Iraq in the 1990’s under President Bill Clinton and Secretary Madeline Albright.

The story of Iraq’s modern relations with the West began after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent British wardship over its lands. The Middle East was carved up into smaller nations with European owners, each operating with Theocratic officials who were loyal to their European wards. From 1932 until 1941 Iraq had a measure of independence, until the British took control of the nation again to assure the safety of their oil lines for use in the Second World War. Even during their short time of independence, Iraqis were subject to the presence of many European military bases and personnel. After the end of the War, Iraqi nationalism had become extremely popular as the people of Iraq campaigned for autonomy and freedom from the control of international powers. This prompted the rise of a pan-Arabic and secular movement that brought Saddam Hussein to power, combating both international oligarchy and oppressive Sunni Theocracy.

It wasn’t long before Iran followed suit and ousted their western installed leader the Shah, with a nationalist revolution that lead to Shia Theocracy.

It is an interesting side note how Arabic nationalism lead to both a Theocratic outcome in Iran and a secular outcome in Iraq, demonstrating how domestic backlash from an oppressive environment can manifest in dramatically different ways.

The revolutionary prologue in Iraq soon gave way to US and Israeli backing of Saddam Hussein in a war against Iran, wherein chemical weapons were deployed at the Iraqi government’s disposal. This situation was aggravated by Kurdish separatists who opposed Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, aiming to create their own state of Kurdistan. This made stability and power decentralization very difficult for the newly independent Iraq, pushing Saddam’s government to clamp down on its people to prevent internal revolt and raise measures of security against infiltration.

A symptom of this rising extremist state was the use of the above stated chemical weapons. These acts were not condemned during their use against Iran, but came under intense international scrutiny when they were used against the Kurds in the chemical attack of Halabja in 1988.

Not long after Iraq’s long and bloody war with Iran and the Kurds came the Iraqi invasion of their neighboring state Kuwait. While advertised as an unprovoked land grab in many media outlets, the Iraqi government was responding militarily to the use of Kuwaiti slant drills collecting oil over the Iraqi border. Slant drilling allows for the collection of oil over a wide span of landmass, often leading to siphoning off someone else’s land. Saddam approached the international community regarding Kuwait’s illegal actions but was met with little recognition. Kuwaiti slant drilling threatened one of Iraq’s most valuable exports and the sanctity of an independent nation. For this reason Saddam went to war.

Between the Halabja gassing and the invasion of Kuwait a new narrative could be constructed to derail any chance of Iraqi autonomy. The new rendition of events could portray Iraq in defiance of the Geneva Protocol against use of chemical weapons and simultaneously misrepresent the Kuwaiti engagement as acts of aggression by Saddam Hussein. The purpose of this would be the creation of license for a war against Iraq, to dismantle the Iraqi government and reinstitute international wardship over the nation. By way of moral debt the United States was able to garner the support of its own people and international community for a war in Iraq; supposedly meant to protect Kuwait and Iraqi citizens from Saddam’s tyrannical government.

The US offensive would once again make Saddam and the Republican Guard impose measures to further Authoritarianism in Iraq, in an effort to maintain control over their country.

A bad taste was left in the mouths of Americans after the Gulf War ended. Saddam had remained in power and countless lives were lost along with many US army personnel being poisoned by chemical weapons, many of which were remnants supplied by western powers during the Iraq-Iran war. The United States could no longer continue visible engagement with Iraq due to its unpopularity amongst the people. In order to continue waging war a new front had to be made via sanctioning.

The conservative era of Reagan and Bush morphed into a pseudo-progressivism lead by President Bill Clinton. Overseas engagements weren’t favorable to the American people, but Saddam’s government was still painted as morally unacceptable. Granted the Iraqi government had become an extreme Authoritarian state due to constant warfare, but it still remained secular unlike nations such as Saudi Arabia.

The continued use of moral debt aimed toward the international community allowed the passive warfare of sanctioning to become the next terrible reality in Iraq. Beginning during the Bush I administration, sanctions against Iraq expanded in scope and severity under Clinton and Albright. These included (but were not limited to) a removal of food for oil imports, medicines, water (as Iraq is a landlocked nation), water purification chemicals, and a barring of oil exports out of Iraq. While the UN expected to allow enough necessity imports to allow civilians their needs, the death toll amounted to approximately 500,000 children under five years old. Reports of death rates for Iraqi adults during this time vary. The embargo on Iraq arguably had higher mortality implications than traditional warfare, and most certainly had higher rates for young children or infants. When confronted regarding the ramifications of sanctioning Iraq Secretary Albright is quoted saying:

“I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.”

She later would write that Saddam, not the sanctions, was to blame.

Given this devastating example, the story of Iraq takes on a new light. After years of war, a small newly independent state had already been forced to implement Authoritarian practice. There was not enough domestic stability to begin exploring Democratic or self-determinative prospects. The sanctions upon Iraq made domestic unrest a permanent reality for Saddam’s government. The Iraqi people were without basic necessities and, understandably, many blamed their own government. This made Saddam’s Authoritarian regime even more extreme. All the while the international community feeds this cycle, intervening in Iraqi affairs to stop Authoritarianism while ironically augmenting its growth.

The sanctioning of Iraq had the opposite effect than what was desired, if moral nature were the true reason for said sanctions. However, if the objective were to dismantle autonomy in Iraq sanctioning and perpetual war were quite effective.

Globalization has created a world far more unified than many realize on a day to day basis. While worldwide trade has raised the quality of life for an unprecedented number of people, it has also created a model where exclusion from the global marketplace can be more deadly than traditional warfare. It is all too often that such exclusion exists not on the basis of morality, but on the basis of economic compliance. An autonomous state is more expensive and difficult to deal with regarding trade than a state under ward.

As detailed before, the existence of state must be accompanied by some sort of power homogenization. A limit to political pluralism accompanies state related consolidation of power. The same can be said for morality in the international spectrum. Moral debt, and the use of morals or ethics in global affairs is homogenized. The narratives and pluralism regarding these concepts are also limited by the larger players in the arena, as what is and isn’t acceptable is determined by stronger military or economic forces.

Therefore a potential even more dangerous than war emerges. As morality and ethics become subjective to a homogeneous power, those intrinsic human feelings are easily manipulated or diluted. When perspective of morality is defined by hierarchy it will almost certainly be used for ulterior motives.

Likely it would be more pertinent to preserve and facilitate infrastructure, including the four foundations, to assist in abolishing Authoritarianism. The removal of necessities through sanctioning affects the populace as a whole more so than the higher tiers of Authoritarian government, as remaining resources are consolidated for aristocratic use and civil unrest ferments as a result.

Sanctions against Venezuela, North Korea, Russia, Iran, Liberia, Sudan and many others may have probable outcomes similar to Iraq. Limiting interaction with the global community contributes to established-determination within states, making reform and political evolution difficult to manifest. Revolutionary sentiments increase in likelihood and the state responds with further consolidation of power.

Jaron Pearlman