The Sanctions Game


By Matthew Riemer

Yellow Times
May 19, 2003

The Bush administration's doctrine of what's-good-for-the-U.S.-is-good-for-the-world is once again on display as Washington continues to insist that economic sanctions placed on Iraq thirteen years ago following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait be ended. A draft resolution submitted to the United Nations Security Council on May 9th by the United States, Great Britain, and Spain would lift sanctions, allowing Iraqi oil to be legally exported, and give Washington and London primary responsibility for running post-war Iraq. The proposal is being met with resistance from Security Council members such as Russia and France on the grounds that weapons inspectors must return to Iraq to confirm the absence of weapons of mass destruction -- the very reason for the sanctions and one of the chief justifications for the war. Washington rejects this for fear that the weapons inspectors would reveal the fact that Iraq has no -- or insignificantly little -- weapons of mass destruction.

For thirteen years, the United States has been authoritative in maintaining some of the strictest, most closely regulated sanctions in the history of economic warfare. Following the first Gulf War in which the administration of George H. W. Bush restored a non-democratic government to power in the very wealthy, tiny oil-state of Kuwait, sanctions remained in place ostensibly until Saddam Hussein was completely disarmed of all weapons of mass destruction. However, during the '90s, as United Nations weapons inspectors oversaw the destruction of massive amounts of chemical weapons along with the "building blocks" for biological agents, Washington began indicating that that wasn't enough and that sanctions would remain in place until Saddam Hussein was removed from power. In 1997, President Clinton, quoted in the New York Times, said, "Sanctions will be there until the end of time or as long as he [Saddam] lasts." Then, after weapons inspectors removed themselves in the summer of '98 followed by the intense U.S./U.K. bombing campaign known as Desert Fox, the intentions of Washington became clear to all save the terribly cynical and selectively naive: the destruction of the political entity known as Iraq, including its government, society and infrastructure.

Saddam Hussein and his Ba'ath Party were to be eradicated forever; the Iraqi people were to become so destitute as to forget their identity (assuming this would lead to their rising up and overthrowing of the government); and the infrastructure of the country was to become so shattered as to prevent the assertion of Iraq as a modern state any time in the immediate future. The sanctions also functioned as an economic tool levered against some of Washington's most significant Eurasian rivals -- France, Germany, Russia, and China -- as they prevented these countries from activating contracts strategically signed with the Iraqi government. Most notably, France's TotalFinaElf and Russia's second largest oil company LUKoil had multiple contracts worth billions of dollars to develop and exploit some of Iraq's largest oil fields. However, as long as the sanctions were in place, these contracts could not legally go into effect. And with both the U.S. and U.K. as permanent members of the Security Council, Washington was assured that these competitors would not beat them to the punch when it came to capitalizing on the petroleum potential of the country with the world's second largest reserves behind Saudi Arabia. This arrangement was exploited by the Bush administration during the "diplomatic phase" leading up to the U.S.' preemptive invasion as Washington attempted to bribe countries who had contracts in Iraq by indicating that their existing contracts may very well become moot following the seizure of Iraq by the U.S. military if they didn't support the invasion.

The U.S. media seized on this story and used it as a vehicle for proof of complicity between France, Russia and Iraq as if the United States had never dealt intimately with Saddam Hussein. Now President Bush is, in an oddly naive way, asking why anyone would want to hurt the Iraqi people by not agreeing to the immediate and complete removal of sanctions in Iraq. However, such comments are removed from the larger and more precise context that has the United States befriending, arming, and providing intelligence to Saddam Hussein during the time of his bloodiest endeavors -- the invasion of Iran, the use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, and the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds. All of these were events, literally tens of thousands of times more bloody and vile than the relatively innocuous invasion of Kuwait, with which the United States essentially oversaw and found no problem. The Halabja incident, now invoked in somber tones typically reserved for such horrifying events as the Jewish Holocaust as well as being exploited by President Bush, wasn't even condemned at the time it took place in 1988.

Because of the relevant history of the last 15 years, the idea that the U.S. is acting in the interests of the Iraqi people while scolding those who do not seems quite absurd. In much of the world, such claims and pronouncements as the Bush administration has made lately are seen as both preposterous and hypocritical. Yet, in the mellower, post-war environment, it's still possible that companies such as TotalFinaElf (now Total SA) may net smaller contracts in Iraq. The Associated Press reported: "Chairman Thierry Desmarest [of Total SA] also said the group [Total SA] stands 'a good chance' of taking part in the future development of Iraqi oil fields despite Paris' opposition to the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime."

Voice of America wrote on May 9th: "Already, the Bush administration is moving ahead with awarding contracts to American companies to do that [creation of oil infrastructure], with one worth nearly a billion dollars going to the California-based Bechtel Corporation, another to a subsidiary of Houston's Halliburton, which used to be run by Vice President Dick Cheney." And so now that the U.S. has secured Iraqi resources for itself through widely unpopular, unilateralist might, the Bush administration suddenly wants to lift the sanctions so that colossal companies beholden to Washington can begin the process of developing Iraq's resources. But now France and Russia are in the spoiler's role, interfering in Washington's plans for the speedy privatization of Iraq.

The situation, then, is quite simple: The world's most powerful countries are acting in their own national self-interest in trying to secure massive resource contracts in a geopolitically vital state that will doubtless remain one of the key regions as the 21st century unfolds. The status of Iraqi sanctions is the focal point in a game of power politics in which the Iraqi people are the only real losers.

[Matthew Riemer has written for years about a myriad of topics, such as: philosophy, religion, psychology, culture, and politics. He studied Russian language and culture for five years and traveled in the former Soviet Union in 1990. In the midst of a larger autobiographical/cultural work, Matthew is the Director of Operations at He lives in the United States.]

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