Before Israel Blockaded Gaza

August 24, 2010

In News

On June 13th, two weeks after Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara, a profile of the respected liberal intellectual and Just War theorist Michael Walzer appeared in Haaretz. Amidst his professed concern about Israel’s diminished standing in world, Walzer offered this bit of wisdom regarding the siege of Gaza:

Think of the American effort to embargo the regime of Saddam Hussein in 1991 to 2003. It was entirely justified and even originally had United Nations authorization, but over time the consequences of the blockade did affect the living standard of ordinary Iraqis partly because of the way the Iraqi government behaved but also partially because of the nature of the blockade. So at a certain point Colin Powell came forward with the idea of smart sanctions, which are designed to have the necessary military restraints without having these effects on the population or without having the same affects on the population. Now what you need are smart sanctions.

Whether the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu will be compelled to emulate the American example of “smart sanctions” is an open question. That the Israeli government’s current siege on Gaza is causing a humanitarian crisis of unknown proportions is certain, despite the length Israeli leaders have gone to deny it. Walzer, in his classic book Just and Unjust Wars, calls siege “the oldest form of total war”; Walzer also justified the Six-Day War in 1967 by calling attention to Egypt’s closing of the Straits of Tiran, which Israel used as a casus belli in that conflict. Where on the spectrum does this leave the far graver economic strangulation affecting Palestinians today? Walzer has never said.

invisiblewarIn any event, Walzer is certainly correct: a comparison between the sanctions placed on Iraq after the first Gulf War and the ongoing siege of Gaza is apt. And Walzer, as a preeminent liberal intellectual, undoubtedly sums up mainstream liberal opinion in the United States by calling the Iraqi sanctions “entirely justified”; how often, in run-up to the War on Iraq in 2003, was the effectiveness, to say nothing of the justification, of the sanctions used as an argument against the invasion? According to this line of argument, U.S. policy was working; Saddam was no longer a threat. Bush and the neocons were only upsetting a successful policy—a policy the Clinton administration presided over throughout its time in office.

Now we have a different take on Iraqi sanctions, and the halcyon period of “the Clinton years.” Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions by Joy Gordon, professor of Philosophy at Fairfield University, is the most extensive study of the sanctions on Iraq to date. It is also a devastating critique of one aspect of the sanctions that was virtually never considered, or deemed important, by U.S policy makers—namely, the effect of the sanctions on the Iraqi people (as one State Department official told Gordon, humanitarian consideration “was not our job. It was not part of our skill set”). Parts of this sordid history may known to some—for example, Denis Halliday, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Baghdad, famously resigned from his post in 1998, calling the sanctions “genocidal”. Many might also recall the infamous statement made by Madeleine Albright, who, when asked by Lesley Stahl in a 1996 interview on 60 Minutes about the half- million children who had reportedly died as a result of the sanctions, responded “we think the price is worth it.” That statement, according to Gordon, galvanized the small grassroots movement opposing the sanctions, and would haunt Albright for the rest of her tenure as U.S. Ambassador to the UN.

Indeed, one important, if understated, theme in Gordon’s book is how U.S. leaders effectively divorced the policies they were clearly responsible for from the perception of those policies, viewing them as distinct problems. This, in particular, draws an interesting parallel with Israel’s recent “approach” vis-à-vis the world in the last few years. Madeline Albright, for example, claimed in her autobiography Madam Secretary to “take things personally” and become “indignant” when “people said I was responsible for murdering millions of people”; this is why she considered the sanctions “our public relations problem”. Looking back on her 60 Minutes gaffe, Albright expressed sincere regret—not for the numbers of dead, but for not “refram[ing] it [Stahl’s question] and pointing out the inherent flaws in the premise behind it.” Ultimately, Albright explained reports of the humanitarian catastrophe by claiming “[a]nti-Americanism will always find a receptive audience in some circles.” That “anti-Americanism” may have been the result of a policy denying Iraq vaccines to treat infant hepatitis, tetanus, and diphtheria, or the denial of equipment used to maintain blood banks, or a host of vital humanitarian supplies denied on the flimsiest of security pretexts, was apparently lost on Albright and other elites. Yet it will not be lost on the reader which state this currently reminds them of: the strange combination of arrogance and sensitivity (a State Department official tells Gordon, “we were acutely conscious of the accusations [of wrongdoing]”), the almost obsessive preoccupation with managing the way they are perceived by others, irrespective of change in policy (as Albright put it, “our public relations problem”). Indeed, as Gordon writes, “in general hearings on ‘the situation in Iraq’, no witnesses gave testimony on the humanitarian situation, except to say that claims of a crisis were exaggerated or to bemoan the fact that, somehow, inexplicably, Saddam had won ‘the propaganda war’”. Of course, the most powerful states do not need hasbara. But a useful parallel might be made between America and Israel here: the reflexive reduction of criticism to some base ideology (whether anti-Americanism or anti-Semitism), and the basic inability, or unwillingness, to see their “image” in the world as the direct result of policies that others find reprehensible. Also, the seemingly endless ability to rationalize, while desperately clinging to some moral high ground: today, apologists for the Israeli blockade occasionally maintain that they want to “free” Gaza from Hamas rule (though Hamas was democratically elected); Albright, at one point, even claimed that she “care[d] more about the children of Iraq than Saddam Hussein does”. One might wonder whether Roosevelt justified immigration quotas during World War II by reminding people that he cared more about Jews than Hitler did.

Readers of Invisible War will also note that, much like the siege in Gaza, the sanctions on Iraq were not simply cruel but gratuitous and arbitrary. Thus, we learn that even though “vehicles of all types were blocked”, including firefighting vehicles, the U.S did allow Iraq to have ambulances—but prevented Iraq from importing two-way radios, essentially handicapping the ambulances. Robert von Tersch, an Army biochemist, argued that Iraq should not be allowed to import chicken eggs, because, as Gordon puts it, “egg yolks can be used as a growth medium in which to cultivate biological strains.” Even granting this, Iraq was already producing 600 million eggs per-year during the Oil-for-Food programme (which only amounted to two dozen eggs per Iraqi annually). As Gordon wryly observes, “one would think that 600 million provided enough egg yolks for the government to grow whatever viruses is wanted to.” Fast-forward to John Kerry confronting the Israelis over the ban of macaroni in Gaza, adding a mutual fear of cheap food to qualities that have made for the enduring American/ Israeli relationship.

Many other things could be said about Gordon’s superb book. In light of the devastation wrought by the sanctions, she reveals what many suspected at the time—that the outrage over the “Oil for Food” scandal to was essentially an engineered, hypocritical farce. Congressman Ralph Hall, for example, accused the UN program of causing the “deaths of thousands of Iraqis”. “We have a name for that in the United States”, Hall said; “it is called murder.”

Perhaps the most important section, in my opinion, is the chapter “International Law and the Sanctions”. Here, Gordon addresses Denis Halliday’s charge that the sanctions amounted to genocide. Gordon finds that the sanctions likely do not meet the standard of genocide, at least as defined by the UN Genocide Convention and Rome Statute. If this is so, it is only because of the absence of mens rea, or the mental component, necessary for genocide to be determined. In other words, it boils down to intent, and to Gordon, this is “good reason to be deeply disappointed in international law”. For the importance attached to the legally nebulous concept of intent, where genocide is defined as the “attempt to destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”, essentially absolves those campaigns against a particular group that are not motivated by racial, ethnic or religious hatred. As Gordon writes, “while international law gives us a framework to judge those acts driven by racial hatred, on the model of the Holocaust, it is not adequate to address atrocities that are deliberately implemented by indifferent officials for political or economic purposes.”

The apparent absence of some supremely evil motive to inflict massive suffering on Iraqis, even when that suffering was known to be the predicable consequence of U.S. policy, also likely accounts for the virtual absence of the humanitarian cost of the sanctions from mainstream liberal discourse. Gordon doesn’t address this issue, but one might consider, for example, Samantha Power’s blockbuster A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2003. In the book, Power’s discussion of Iraq deals exclusively with Saddam’s crimes against the Kurdish minority. Thus Power does discuss at length the sanctions almost placed on Iraq—the ones before the first Gulf War. She describes the heroic effort of Peter Galbraith, son of the famous economist and later Ambassador to Croatia, who tirelessly advocated for the use of economic sanctions against the will of a supine Congress. Throughout, Power heaps ridicule on opponents of the sanctions, especially those ostensibly protecting U.S. agricultural interests. As Gordon shows, later on these representatives from “farm states” were amongst the very few voices criticizing the comprehensive sanctions after the war, on the grounds that they were hurting American farmers, and were also unable to achieve policy ends. In Power’s moral universe, however, these imperfect criticisms reek of “self-interest”, and are thus deemed unacceptable.

In fact, Power never deals with the sanctions after the first Gulf War; her narrative ends with Clinton’s Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, signing a communiqué in 1995 accusing Iraq of committing genocide against the Kurds. Thus the U.S. finally mustered the will to face up to Iraq’s own crimes, and the lesson of Power’s book is clear: America must cease to “do nothing” when faced with the prospect of genocide. That the United States has, in fact, occasionally taken a somewhat more involved stance with regard to genocide—In Iraq, as we have seen, U.S. led policy basically enabled one—is clearly a fact that Power cannot acknowledge, for she, like most liberal intellectuals, takes comfort that the worst we can do is abdicate our responsibilities, shirk from our benevolent mission, look away from the crimes others commit. As the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said about A Problem from Hell, “it should change the way we see America and its role in the world.” Whether Joy Gordon’s Invisible War will have a similar, if less self-congratulatory, effect, remains to be seen.

Matthew Phillips is a twenty-five year old New Yorker pursuing an Masters degree in Middle East studies.