Boyd's Question: Are Sanctions on Iraq a Sensible Grand Strategy?

September 24, 2000

Comment: #388


[1] Warren P. Strobel and Kevin Whitelaw, The Trap That Suits Saddam--and the U.S, Washington Post - Outlook, September 24, 2000, page ;B01

Reference 1 is an excellent discussion of how our strategy of using sanctions to isolate and weaken the regime of Saddam Hussein has become useful in a perverse way to the interests of politicians in the United States AND Saddam Hussein.

But this strategy is also showing increasing signs of unraveling from a grand-strategic perspective. Moreover, it has raised a host of lingering moral questions that are amplified by our continuing failure to account for its grand-strategic consequences, which may be sowing the seeds of far greater problems over the long term.

Consider the following, for example: Saddam appears more and more politically entrenched and secure, although recent reports suggest he may be dying of cancer. Sanctions have fomented corruption in Iraq and among allies, like Turkey, by creating a lucrative black market that is also enriching Saddam and his cronies. Sanctions, in conjunction with Saddam's ruthless policies, have led to large number of infant deaths, as well as the destruction of the Iraqi middle class, which might have been his most potent democratic opposition, not to mention the key to Iraq's eventual reintegration into the world community. Recent diplomatic and commercial openings by France, Russia, and even some Gulf states, among others, suggest that support for continued sanctions is weakening and may be unraveling. The process of monitoring weapons of mass destruction has broken down. The ongoing oil price spike has handed Saddam extra leverage, or at least the appearance of leverage, to influence a U.S election by giving him all sorts of options (changing Iraq's pumping rate, threatening Kuwait, etc.) for shaping oil prices as a weapon in his ongoing cat an mouse game with the U.S. Finally, the failure of sanctions to condition Saddam's behavior has led to recurring frustrations culminating in fits of ineffectual sporadic strike operations that resemble drive-by shootings with bombs and cruise missiles more than a coherent military strategy.

Viewed abstractly as a U.S. strategy, it is clear that aim of these sanctions has been to hurt our adversary and thereby compel him to act in a way our leaders deem to be acceptable to U.S. interests, whatever that may be. In this sense, a "sanctions strategy" is like any military strategy, because it is a negatively focused, or destructive effort, but one presumably justified by achieving something positive over the long term, at least from our point of view.

In his seminal Discourse on Winning and Losing, the recently deceased American strategist, Col John R. Boyd (USAF Ret.) demonstrated quite clearly WHY, from a moral as well as a mental perspective, ANY nation's negative strategy should support and be logically connected to the positive aims of that nation's grand strategy. He showed why this was necessary in order to end the conflict on terms that do not sow the seed for further conflict.

With this aim in mind, he also showed WHY the specifics of a sensible grand strategy should ALWAYS strive to meet 4 criteria:

  1. It should pump up our resolve and increase our internal political solidarity.

  2. It should drain away our adversaries' resolve and weaken their internal cohesion.

  3. It should reinforce our allies' commitments to our cause and make them empathetic to our success.

  4. It should attract the uncommitted to our cause or make them empathetic to our success.

Now with this abstract Boydian perspective in mind, examine the specifics of Reference 1. Then ask yourself the following question:

"Does the United States' strategy of sanctions on Iraq to "keep Saddam in his box " satisfy the four necessary criteria of a sensible grand strategy?"

But don't expect this question to asked or answered during the upcoming presidential debates.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1

The Trap That Suits Saddam--and the U.S.

By Warren P. Strobel and Kevin Whitelaw
Washington Post - Outlook
Sunday , September 24, 2000 ; B01



The status quo suits all parties concerned, thank you very much. All parties, that is, except the vast majority of Iraq's 23 million people. But unfortunately for the United States, hewing to the status quo could have disastrous unintended consequences as well.


Consider the Iraqi leader. It's not news that the 10-year-old U.N. sanctions on Iraq, which have done such damage to Iraqi society, no longer seem to threaten his grip on power. But we were surprised to discover just how much the sanctions are helping Hussein.


For the perpetually neglected Kurdish minority, times are also good. The same sanctions regime, along with the four-year-old U.N. program that allows Iraq to sell oil to purchase food and medicines, has, ironically, made the Kurdish areas in the north more stable and prosperous than in decades. That's because Hadi and 3.5 million other Kurds get a 13-percent cut of oil-for-food revenues. They also have come to rely on a brisk oil smuggling business across the Turkish border.


And for the Clinton administration? Oil-for-food has muted some of the international condemnation of the United States for the sanctions. More importantly for the White House, it can claim to have kept Hussein "in his box." This neutralizes what could otherwise be an election-year hazard for Vice President Gore.


Prolonging the current policy of sanctions also helps appease a Congress that in 1998 funded Iraqi opposition groups attempting to overthrow Hussein. But despite isolated outbreaks of revolt over the last two years, the Iraqi internal security services are thriving and the regime's confidence is high.


Another frightening consequence of the status quo is a steady erosion in respect for the sanctions internationally, and with it the persuasive powers of the U.N. and the United States.


Warren Strobel and Kevin Whitelaw cover international affairs for U.S. News & World Report. They recently returned from a two-week reporting trip to 15 of Iraq's 18 provinces.

2000 The Washington Post Company

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