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Democrats Split over Sanctions.

After nearly a decade of bombing and blockade, Iraq has been reduced from a prosperous society to a mass of poverty, suffering, and disease. More than a million Iraqi civilians have died, according to UNICEF, in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. Infrastructure and health care systems in the country have broken down. Raw sewage flows through the waterways, and epidemics of preventable diseases including malaria, typhoid, and cholera ravage the young.

The humanitarian crisis and the seemingly endless stand-off between the United States and Saddam Hussein have prompted some members of Congress to call for a change in U.S. policy.

In February, seventy members of the House of Representatives signed a letter to President Clinton asking that the Administration "delink" economic sanctions from the military sanctions against Iraq.

"More than nine years of the most comprehensive economic embargo imposed in modern history has failed to remove Saddam Hussein from power or even ensured his compliance with international obligations, while the economy and people of Iraq continue to suffer," the letter states. "Morally, it is wrong to hold the Iraqi people responsible for the actions of a brutal and reckless government."

The letter, sponsored by Representative John Conyers, Democrat of Michigan, and Representative Tom Campbell, Republican of California, garnered bipartisan support. Many members of the Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives signed on, including Democrats David Bonior of Michigan, Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Peter DeFazio of Oregon, Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Maxine Waters of California. In March, many of the same Representatives signed a bill that would allow humanitarian aid to flow more freely into Iraq.

But not all progressive Democrats oppose the sanctions.

As anti-sanctions pressure mounts, a pro-sanctions backlash has erupted. A letter drafted by Representatives Joseph Crowley, Democrat of New York, and John Sweeney, Republican of New York, urges the Administration not to budge on Iraq, and asserts that "Saddam Hussein is cynically ... withholding available food and medicines from his own people to garner sympathy for an end to the sanctions." The pro-sanctions letter gathered 125 supporters, including Progressive Caucus members Tom Lantos, Democrat of California, Lane Evans, Democrat of Illinois, as well as New York Democrats Jerrold Nadler and Nita Lowey.

What's going on here?

"The U.N. oil-for-food program has given Saddam Hussein the opportunity to provide basic needs to his people, but he has squandered huge sums of money on arms and luxury goods," says Lowey. "I am horrified by the images of Iraqis who do not have enough food and shelter, but this is a product of tyrannical leadership, not U.N. sanctions. Lifting sanctions will only bolster Saddam Hussein's coffers and enable him to buy weapons of mass destruction--it will not help the Iraqi people."

These are the same arguments made by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)--the second most influential lobbying group in Washington, D.C., according to Fortune magazine. AIPAC has made the pro-sanctions campaign a top priority, urging members of Congress to sign the Crowley-Sweeney letter, and asserting that supporting sanctions on Iraq means supporting Israel.

"Iraq is number one, in terms of immediate military threats to Israel," AIPAC spokesman Kenneth Bricker explains. "People are forgetting the purpose of sanctions, which is to prevent Iraq from getting its hands on hard currency. Whenever Saddam gets hard currency from oil revenues, he spends it on weapons of mass destruction."

Khalil E. Jahshan, vice president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which has been lobbying on the other side, is exasperated by the anti-Saddam argument. "Since the beginning of the Gulf war, with the demonization of Iraq, somehow Iraq has been reduced to Saddam Hussein, as if twenty-two million Iraqi people did not exist," Jahshan says. "This allowed for an insensitivity or at least a passivity from the far left to the far right."

But Jahshan is hopeful: "We are beginning to see a reversal of that attitude, and some sort of intelligent debate, for the first time since 1991."

Among the most vocal early supporters of sanctions on the left was Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts. In his 1992 book, Speaking Frankly: What's Wrong with the Democrats and How to Fix It (Times Books), Frank offered advice on how to buff the Democrats' image. He recommended shaking off the scruffy, 1960s anti-war image and supporting a kind of "progressive" militarism. "Those of us who disagree with the left's rejection of America's moral right to use force in the world must speak out more vigorously lest our candidates find themselves isolated on the left," Frank wrote.

Frank spoke out vigorously a year and a half ago when I encountered him on a Stairmaster at a Washington, D.C., gym, watching live footage of the bombing of Iraq. "This is the worst of the left!" he snapped at me when I asked him whether bombing and starving Iraqi civilians wasn't brutal and ineffective. "What would you do? Send in more American ground troops to be killed?"

Frank backed the Clinton Administration's program of containing Saddam Hussein through a campaign of sanctions and periodic bombings: "So we'll bomb him again, every so often, and prevent him from getting weapons of mass destruction." As for the civilian costs: "That's his fault."

Recently, Frank's position has softened a bit. He refused to sign either of the letters on sanctions that are circulating. "I'm for modifying but not completely lifting the sanctions," he says. "This is one of the most vicious regimes in the world. We shouldn't just back down.... But I think the sanctions have been administered unfairly. I want to loosen them, and maximize the chance that he can buy food and civilian equipment."

Another Democrat who has been rethinking his position on Iraq is the dovish, leftwing Representative from Ohio Tony Hall. Hall visited Iraq in April to take a look at the devastating effect of sanctions. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and Peace Action praised Hall for his public statements deploring the calamity in Iraq upon his return. But the groups' press releases ignored Hall's conclusion: that sanctions should not be lifted.

"We expected when he came back he would be opposing the sanctions," says Hall staffer Deborah DeYoung. "He is against sanctions in North Korea, and he's fed up with sanctions against Cuba. In general, he doesn't think they work, and they hurt the poor."

Despite all that, Hall says he can't support the proposal to "delink" the civilian and military blockades on Iraq.

"Iraq's people are suffering terribly, and it was heartbreaking to see their pain firsthand," Hall said when he returned to Washington from his trip. "But, like the majority of American citizens, I remain concerned about the military threat Iraq continues to pose to its neighbors and the world, and convinced that until progress is made on eliminating weapons of mass destruction, lifting sanctions would be irresponsible."

Hall felt "manipulated" by his Iraqi hosts, and he essentially agreed with AIPAC that Saddam Hussein is using the horrible plight of his people for his own political ends. "I wish that I could support lifting sanctions," Hall said. "Many religious leaders, aid workers, and other people I respect oppose them. I am troubled, though, that some opponents of sanctions don't focus as much attention on Iraq's government as I believe they should."

The Iraqi government could make more of a good-faith effort, Hall believes. "It was apparent from the moment he got there that everything, including the people's suffering, was part of a campaign to end sanctions," DeYoung says. "At one hospital in Baghdad, looking at admittedly terrible suffering, the Iraqi guides made the point that the children there have to sleep two to a bed, that there are not enough beds for them. And while they were talking, a member of the staff slipped away down the hall, and saw rooms and rooms of empty beds."

Stunts like that aside, Hall has no doubt that UNICEF's dire estimates of infant mortality, malnutrition, and disease are accurate.

The heart of the problem, according to Hall, is not the sanctions, but the stalemate between the United States government and Iraq. He condemned racism, a trigger-happy U.S. policy, and belligerence on both sides.

Instead of lifting or "delinking" economic and military sanctions, Hall proposes streamlining relief efforts. He points out that the United Nations stops huge shipments of food and medicine from going to Iraq because as little as 10 percent of the items in a shipment might be used for building weapons. The bureaucratic culture of the oil-for-food program encourages such bottlenecks by rewarding the discovery of possible "dual uses" and holding up shipments of items such as chlorine-which is essential for water purification--because it could be used to make chlorine gas.

"If you find a kidney machine gizmo also works as a nuclear trigger, you're the toast of the town," says DeYoung. "If you just approve the pencil shipment, you get no credit."

Manipulation by the Iraqi government also doesn't account for the uneven distribution of oil-for-food relief, according to former U.N. humanitarian coordinator Hans von Sponeck. Von Sponeck recently became the second U.N. official to resign from the program, protesting the sanctions on Iraq. The oil-for-food program currently totals only $177 per person, per year, according to Von Sponeck, and food relief alone simply cannot make up for a devastated infrastructure.

"Lifting sanctions is the only realistic way to end the human catastrophe in Iraq, rebuild the economy, get people back to work, and reestablish health care, education, electric power, clean water, sanitation, agriculture, oil production levels, and fix other sectors," says Denis Halliday, the first U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq who resigned in protest in 1998.

Because of the U.N. officials' protests, and the efforts of peace activists, the devastation suffered by the people of Iraq is getting more attention now than it has received in a decade. Even if efforts to lift the sanctions are not successful, some sort of reform of the U.N.'s relief effort seems likely.

"Grassroots activism to lift the economic sanctions on Iraq is definitely on the rise," says Fran Teplitz of Peace Action.

"Given the dismal situation in Iraq, there is no room for optimism," says Jahshan. "But at least there is some movement, and an emerging public opinion that is dissatisfied with the failed long-term policy."

Ruth Conniff is Washington Editor of The Progressive.
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Title Annotation:sanctions against Iraq
Author:Conniff, Ruth
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2000
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