Powell Is Smart--and Tough--on Iraq

Meghan L. O'Sullivan is a fellow at the Brookings Institution

Capitol Hill is already grumbling about Secretary of State Colin Powell’s proposal to modernize the sanctions against Iraq. Powell’s critics gripe that his proposal to scale back restrictions on civilian economic activity amounts to a “weakening” of the sanctions. But far from slackening the pressure on Saddam Hussein, Powell’s strategy offers the best prospects for keeping the Iraqi leader in check.

Accusations that proposals to scale back sanctions on civilian goods amount to appeasing Hussein do not stand up to scrutiny. It is true that past efforts to revise Iraqi sanctions were undertaken to entice Baghdad into complying with U.N. demands. U.N. Resolution 1284, passed in December 1999, made some sanctions relief contingent on Iraqi cooperation with weapons inspectors, rather than complete disarmament.

In contrast to these past tinkerings, the rationale for the changes being proposed now is entirely different.

A new, leaner sanctions regime is justified by the need for dramatic steps to stem the erosion of sanctions and to revive international support for the measures most essential to containing Hussein. Maintaining U.N. control of the revenue from all legal Iraqi oil sales is crucial. So is upholding sanctions on military and dual-use items that the regime could use to build weapons of mass destruction.


In comparison, many other restrictions are dispensable. If shedding them eases pressure to lift the sanctions completely, Powell should shed them with glee. It would be a small price to pay for maintaining global support for the few sanctions that really count.

Contrary to naysayers’ claims, Hussein stands to gain nothing from a narrower sanctions regime. Hussein would continue to be deprived of financial resources from Iraqi oil sales and would be further frustrated in his efforts to import military items and technology. Moreover, a revised sanctions package would hurt the Iraqi regime in several other ways. For one thing, it would curtail the oil smuggling that is swelling Hussein’s coffers by more than $2 million a day. Although the recently opened Syrian pipeline is the greatest single challenge to U.N. efforts to control all Iraqi oil revenue, smuggling over land and through the Gulf waters also needs to be curbed. In return for stricter border monitoring, the Powell plan offers regional governments both relief from domestic pressures to lift the sanctions on humanitarian grounds and the prospect of greater legal trade in civilian goods with Iraq.

These incentives help explain the positive reception of Powell’s proposals in the region and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s willingness to consider bringing Syria’s pipeline sales under U.N. auspices. And they will be crucial in convincing regional leaders to dam the river of illegal Iraqi oil now flowing.

A modified sanctions approach would also rob Hussein of the moral high ground that he has wrongfully gained. The world has remained largely unimpressed by U.S. declarations--true as they are--that Hussein is responsible for the suffering of Iraqis. Ending Hussein’s ability to use the misery of his own people to manipulate international opinion requires improving the plight of average Iraqis. This will demand the sanctions restructuring that Powell advocates, as well as more aggressive efforts to rebuild civilian infrastructure and pump resources into the local economy. Simply because some of this progress will depend on minimal Iraqi cooperation is no reason to abandon these efforts. The past decade has shown that Hussein often cooperates on small logistical matters when faced with a unified international community. Yet even if he chooses not to this time, Hussein will find it harder to deflect the blame for Iraqi suffering.


Finally, additional measures targeting the Iraqi regime could accompany a “smarter” sanctions plan. The United Nations could--and should--revive earlier efforts to impose a travel ban on key members in the Iraqi regime. At the same time, the United Nations should instruct member states to freeze the private overseas assets of Iraqi regime members, rather than merely the assets of the state of Iraq, as is now the case. Although these targeted sanctions are not panaceas, when part of a larger package, they help intensify the pressure on elites and further delegitimize unsavory regimes like Hussein’s.

The surest way to make a bad decision is to delude yourself about the options available. The choice before the United States is not between a “tough” sanctions regime and the plan Powell has proposed. Not only is the secretary’s plan the tough option, but the only alternative to it is to have no sanctions at all.