Time to relax economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime? Both moralists and cynics are mounting fervent arguments for letting up on Iraq as the fourth anniversary of the Gulf war arrives. Both camps have it wrong.
The moralists - I have in mind the heads of the National Council of Churches and the Episcopal Church, who recently wrote to President Clinton denouncing sanctions - hope that letting up will relieve the suffering of the Iraqi people and subtly undermine what they call Saddam’s “suffocating rule.”
The church leaders allow hope to triumph over experience.
Iraq is worth a debate in this 50th anniversary year of the defeat of the Nazis in Germany and the liberation of Auschwitz. The nature of Saddam’s regime cannot truthfully be disputed: It is murderous, and evil. If the governments, churches and human rights organizations of the world will not draw the line in Iraq, they will not draw the line against evil anywhere. We will never again be able to say: Never Again.
In its latest refinement of rule by sadism, the Baghdad regime has amputated hands and ears from several thousand army deserters, political opponents and common criminals over the past six months. Saddam’s torturers paraded on television one of their victims - a thief shown writhing in agony - as a warning to the nation.
Saddam Hussein’s regime is also tattooing identification numbers on the foreheads of victims.
This may come as a shock, but not as a surprise. Saddam used poison gas against Iraqis before Operation Desert Storm curbed his capabilities. He practiced a well-documented campaign of genocide against Iraq’s Kurds for a decade. But such once-salient facts recede into the mists of memory as time marches on. Unless you are a Kurd.
Different memories haunt Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, national head of the Episcopal Church. He visited Baghdad to witness for peace before Operation Desert Storm was launched in 1991 and has remained concerned about the fate of the children and other Iraqis he met, according to the Rev. Brian Grieves, head of the church’s Peace and Justice Center in New York and a principal drafter of the letter to Clinton.
The bishop and the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, wrote the president on Jan. 26 saying the United Nations should end its “cruel punishment of an entire people” by relaxing sanctions now.
Their letter notes that Iraq already has authority to import food and medicine. But it does not note that Saddam refuses to use that authority, as a way of protesting the broader sanctions and the U.N. requirements that Iraq pay reparations if it sells oil.
Saddam does not simply refuse to alleviate his people’s suffering; he holds them hostage for political purposes. The church leaders assume that he will allow conditions of life to improve for “the Iraqi people” - that really means the Sunnis of Baghdad - if sanctions are relaxed. The evidence suggests that he will continue to hold the Baghdad population hostage and step up his internal war on the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south, who will not gain if sanctions are relaxed while Saddam is in power.
Another, cynical view is expressed by Eric Rouleau, former French ambassador to Turkey. Urging the lifting of sanctions, Rouleau recalls Charles de Gaulle’s view of the state as a “cold monster” that must pursue its interests wherever they lie: “The French, without necessarily being cynical, tend to be skeptical of the moralism that America traditionally attaches to its policies. … The regime governing a state is not its concern.”
Fortunately that does not in fact represent the view of “the French” as a nation. France does enforce sanctions against Iraq and differentiates its relations between a Chile ruled by Pinochet and one ruled by democrats, or a South Africa ruled by P.W. Botha and one ruled by Nelson Mandela. The nature of a regime is and should be a decisive factor in the way other states treat it.
That is the tragic lesson learned from the blind eye the world turned to “the internal affairs” of Nazi Germany. That is why the world said never again when it learned the full extent of the Holocaust. In Iraq we will learn if the world really meant never again.