On May 8, President Bush announced the lifting of U.S. economic sanctions against Iraq, and he again called on the U.N. Security Council to lift the U.N.-imposed sanctions. With Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar by his side, President Bush noted that the regime against which the sanctions were directed "no longer rules Iraq" and he declared, "no country in good conscience can support using sanctions to hold back the hopes of the Iraqi people."
In truth, what the U.N. decides has little to do with the Iraqi people. But it has a lot to do with U.S. foreign policy and the nature of power in the world today.
To understand the current debate it is important to understand the history of sanctions. Beginning in August 1990, the U.N. imposed economic sanctions on Iraq, as punishment for Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. The sanctions were then extended after the end of the first Gulf War in April 1991. In one crucial respect, the sanctions failed. International pressure failed to bring down Hussein's government, and did nothing to halt his brutal repression of his own people. The Iraqi people suffered while Hussein continued to live like a king. In fact, sanctions may have made Hussein and his Baath Party allies richer because they profited from the rampant smuggling that grew up to evade sanctions.
But the sanctions were more than useless. They were harmful. In 1999 UNICEF, the U.N.'s humanitarian institution, estimated that infant and child mortality rates had doubled in portions of Iraq since the end of the first Gulf War. Given that this trend marked a reversal from the 1980s, sanctions were blamed for the deaths of as many as 500,000 Iraqi children who would not have died otherwise.
The half-a-million dead children figure became a rallying cry for those opposed to U.S. policy towards Iraq. Although the U.N. imposed the sanctions, the U.S., as the dominant world power, was largely blamed for leaving them in place, even after many countries - including Kuwait - had called for them to be lifted.
It is now time to reverse this harmful policy. It makes no sense that the U.N. would continue to punish the Iraqi people now that Hussein has disappeared. But the latest power play by the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- France and Russia especially -- is not about punishing Iraq. It is about punishing the United States. Once again, the Iraqi people are caught in the middle.
This time, however, the American people are also caught. If the U.N. blocks "Oil for Food" monies, if the U.N. obstructs other humanitarian relief, if the U.N. member states and international financial institutions block debt restructuring, the burden of rebuilding Iraq will fall to American taxpayers, and American servicemen and women.
Over the long term, the U.N. will be unable to force its way into the rebuilding process if the United States does not want it involved. The impotency of the U.N. was demonstrated for the world when the Bush administration ignored the objections of the other members of the Security Council (the United Kingdom being a notable exception) in waging war on Iraq.
However, that was merely the most recent example of U.N. irrelevance. Another sign of the U.N.'s inability to influence world events is tied to the sanctions. Even a country as powerful as the United States has struggled to enforce its will through the use of economic measures alone. Witness North Korea's ability to maintain a daunting military force while threatening its neighbors with nuclear terror. Or ask the long-suffering Cubans, struggling to survive the brutal dictatorship of Fidel Castro. If sanctions are uniquely effective-the peaceful path to diplomacy short of war-tell that to those recently executed in Cuba for attempting to hijack a ferry to freedom.
Sanctions don't work, and they hurt the people we are trying to help. The Bush administration, while rightly calling for the end to sanctions in Iraq, should consider that fact when arguing for an extension or strengthening of sanctions against other "rogue" states. In the meantime, the U.N. should lift the sanctions against Iraq, and allow the Iraqi people to enjoy the benefits of political and economic freedom that have been denied them for so many years.
Christopher Preble is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.