Iran 2012: Iraq 2003 All Over Again? presented the neoliberal case for the imposition of economic sanctions on Iran. The panel was moderated by Karen Finney and consisted of Democratic strategist Bob Creamer, Alireza Nader from the Rand Corporation, National Security Network executive director Heather Hurlburt, and Rhode Island’s own Senator Jack Reed. Reed was quick to point out (to some applause) his 2003 vote against the authorization of force in Iraq. But still it’s no surprise I suppose to see him defending the administration’s plan for projection of U.S. power via sanctions on Iran, a strategy he described as a “peaceful” alternative to outright military force. What was odd for me was that the discussion focused entirely on justifying economic sanctions on Iran without a single panelist to the left of the empire lite position of the Obama administration.
Essentially panelists sought to convince progressives that although sanctions in Iraq led eventually to the disastrous invasion and occupation, this time it will be different. War weariness, a faltering domestic economy, a changed Middle East, and the “one extraordinary difference, unilateralism,” as Senator Reed put it, make it different than 2003. Certainly there are some differences, but I couldn’t help but think the panel should have asked, Iraq 1990 All Over Again? As the Times put it in 2003:
For many people, the sanctions on Iraq were one of the decade’s great crimes, as appalling as Bosnia or Rwanda. Anger at the United States and Britain, the two principal architects of the policy, often ran white hot. Denis J. Halliday, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Iraq for part of the sanctions era, expressed a widely held belief when he said in 1998: ”We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that.” Even today, Clinton-era American officials ranging from Madeleine K. Albright, the former secretary of state, and James P. Rubin, State Department spokesman under Albright, to Nancy E. Soderberg, then with the National Security Council, speak with anger and bitterness over the fervor of the anti-sanctions camp. As Soderberg put it to me, ”I could not give a speech anywhere in the U.S. without someone getting up and accusing me of being responsible for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children.”
I asked exactly that question when given the chance. I traveled a bit in the Middle East in the 90s and was approached by an Iraqi who begged me to tell people back home the effect the sanctions were having on Iraqi civilians. “You’re killing the children and old people,” he said with the hope that if Americans only knew we’d stop. That’s a difference now too. Americans can no longer claim to be unsure or blissfully ignorant. We now know the effect these sanctions will have on the civilian population.
As Madeline Albright said it, “this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.” Heather Hurlburt, a speechwriter for Albright, similarly defended the calculus of the collective punishment of civilians as preferable to war. But these rationalizations conveniently omit the effect the sanctions and the Clinton administration’s eventual signing of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 had in laying the groundwork for the Bush invasion. By 2003 the die was cast, and progressives could do little to stop it. The question now, will we do it all over again? Just don’t say you couldn’t have known.