Toward a More Moral Foreign Policy

by Patrick J. Buchanan – December 16, 1999
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Washington, DC

After seven years, this administration has yet to find the right formula for dealing with what we now call “the rogue nations.” Five years of bribes to North Korea seem only to have whetted the hermit kingdom’s appetite for more bribes. On the other hand, U.S. sanctions have failed to dislodge or weaken the grip of hostile regimes in Iraq, Iran, Cuba, or Serbia, but have enraged our allies who defy them, and spread resentment against America all over the world. In our desire to punish old enemies, we seem only to be creating new ones. Indeed, sanctions have become the feel-good but ineffectual foreign policy of the self-righteous. Let us consider.

A year ago, an article appeared in the New York Times under the headline “Iraq: A Pediatrician’s Hell: No Way to Stop the Dying.” The reporter led readers through a day with the chief resident at the central teaching hospital for pediatrics in Baghdad.

Iraq, the doctor told his visitor, was once the most advanced country in the Arab world for science and medicine. Now, Iraq’s doctors cannot even read medical journals; because medical journals are embargoed. Childhood leukemia, a disease with a cure rate of 70 percent in America, is now nearly always fatal in Iraq. Disposable syringes must be used over and over again. Their importation has been blocked out of fear that medical syringes will be used to create anthrax spores. Ancient X-ray machines leak radiation. Chlorine, a vital water disinfectant, all the more necessary because Iraq’s sewage treatment plants were bombed in Desert Storm, is embargoed, lest it be diverted into chlorine gas. Even the plastic bags needed for blood transfusions are restricted.

Last year, Denis Halliday, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, resigned in protest and returned home to Ireland. By Halliday’s estimate, 5,000 Iraqi children die every month from the impact of sanctions on Iraq’s water supply, sanitation, diet, and medical care. The deaths come from dysentery, cholera, and malnutrition, which lowers resistance to other diseases. Halliday holds America, the principal advocate and enforcer of UN Security Council sanctions, responsible for the deaths of 60,000 Iraqi children every year, and of 500,000 since 1991. If his figures are correct, more Iraqi children have been lost in nine years to U.S. sanctions than all the American soldiers killed in combat in all the wars of the 20th century.

Woodrow Wilson called sanctions the “peaceful silent deadly remedy.” Today, they may fairly be called America’s silent weapon of mass destruction whose victims are almost always the weak, the sick, the women and the young. When Arab terrorists murder Israeli children, we Americans are rightly filled with horror and disgust. But what do Arab peoples think of us when U.S sanctions bring death to literally thousands of Iraqi children every single month? Can a nation that declares piously it will never stoop to assassinating tyrants, but wields a sanctions sword that slaughters children, truly call itself “the home of the brave?”

Now, Saddam Hussein is undeniably a tyrant, who brutalizes his people and has sought to build weapons of mass destruction. But sanctions have failed to remove him from power. And as he cannot survive outside his heavily guarded palaces, he will never surrender power. Thus, the sanctions, while murderous to Iraq’s people, have little prospect of success. In a real sense, Saddam today is holding the people of Iraq hostage, while America kills the hostages. A few years ago, Madeleine Albright was asked on 60 Minutes if she believed that a policy that killed so many children was worth it. She answered: “We believe the price is worth it.” No, Madam Secretary, it is not worth it. A policy that sentences thousands of Iraqi children to death every month, because their parents will not rise up and overthrow a tyrant, is unrighteous and immoral.

For centuries, philosophers and theologians have grappled with the question of under what circumstances a just war may be fought. Christian doctrine demands that such a war be defensive, and never aggressive. It must be waged only as a last resort, after all other means of negotiating peace have been exhausted. The violence used must be proportional to the threat. There must be a prospect of victory so that soldiers are not sent to their death for no purpose. In a just war, innocents may never be directly targeted; and, after the fighting is over, there must be no acts of vengeance. Today, U.S. sanctions on Iraq contravene virtually every tenet of the Just War doctrine. After nine years, we have failed in our goal of ousting Saddam; it is not he or his henchmen who suffer, it is the innocent people of Iraq. And it is impossible to argue that the death of scores of thousands of children is a price proportional to the threat associated with Saddam Hussein’s survival in power.

Surely, these are the reasons Pope John Paul II has called for an end to sanctions on Iraq, that the National Council of Catholic Bishops has called for lifting the embargo. These clerics are giving witness to the deepest traditions of Christian ethical teaching on the most difficult of human problems. But U.S. economic warfare is not confined to Baghdad. In Mr. Clinton’s first term, the U.S. imposed 61 unilateral sanctions on 35 countries. Even his own Secretary of Commerce, William Daley, concedes that “we’ve become a sanctions happy nation.”

Since Colonel Khadafi was found culpable in the air massacre of Pan Am 103, the U.S. has imposed strict sanctions on Libya. What have they accomplished? Khadafi has handed over two suspects in the atrocity and ousted Abu Nidal, the front man for Palestinian terror. But even as U.S. sanctions have remained in force, U.S.-made computers, fuel pumps and drilling equipment pour in from our NATO allies and our ban on air travel is circumvented by a ferry to Malta. Lately, Italy’s Prime Minister completed a visit to Libya.

We also maintain sanctions on Iran, which has indeed been a hostile nation. Twenty years ago, Teheran held 52 U.S. diplomats and Marines hostage for 14 months. That regime undermines the Middle East peace process; and its agent may have colluded in the terrorist bombing of Khobar towers. But if Iran is responsible for the deaths of scores of Americans, China, North Korea, and North Vietnam are responsible for the deaths of 100,000 U.S. soldiers. Yet, we engage Vietnam, send foreign aid to North Korea, and provide China with a $60 billion annual trade surplus?

Are the regimes in North Korea and Vietnam morally superior to Iran’s? Are those countries more strategically important? If we believe the cause of peace is advanced when Israelis talk to Arafat, and British talk to the IRA, why should we not talk to Teheran?

Just last month, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Afghanistan, because the ruling Taleban refuses to deliver up Osama bin Laden. But rather than revolting against the regime, the Afghani people took to the streets of Kabul shouting “Death to America!” They burned our flag; six UN buildings were stoned or burned. Have we not learned from our own history, of British sanctions against the 13 colonies? Embargoes do not cow people into submission, they unite people in defiance.

Last May, nuclear tests by India and Pakistan triggered a U.S. law imposing sanctions. India has since increased defense spending by 14%; Pakistan by 9%. Has either given up its nuclear arsenal?

As for Myanmar next door, Mr. Clinton declared in 1997 that “the actions of the Government [there] constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the security of the United States.” He then banned all American investment in that country. And what was the “extraordinary threat”? The ruling junta in Rangoon had refused to recognize an opposition victory in the May 1990 elections and was holding Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest.

And how effective was our policy of “isolating” Myanmar? The Philippines and Thailand dropped their opposition to Myanmar’s application for membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, and, to defy Uncle Sam, invited Myanmar, and Laos and Cambodia as well, to join ASEAN.

After smashing Serbia with our 78-day bombing campaign, we now quarrel with our NATO allies over how severe sanctions should be. The Clinton-Albright preference is to block all assistance in removing toxic war debris and bombed bridges from the Danube, and to deny the Serbs heating oil in coming the brutal Balkan winter. This immoral policy shames us as a people. We are putting old men, women, and children under a sentence of death for failing to do what NATO itself could not do: overthrow Slobodan Milosevic? Moreover, as the London Economist writes:

Isolation has helped [Milosevic and Saddam] to stoke paranoia, justify repression and escape responsibility for their people’s suffering. In Iraq, and to a lesser extent in Serbia, sanctions have ruined the liberal middle class and spawned gangster elites. The poor, meanwhile, cannot think beyond the struggle to keep alive.

Finally, in Cuba, our embargo continues to give Fidel Castro a scapegoat for his own socialist failures. His dictator’s grip has not been loosened; seized American properties have not been returned; yet, after 37 years, the sanctions endure.

In 1991, Castro’s umbilical chord was severed when Havana lost its $5 billion annual subsidy from Moscow. Though the world has turned upside down since then, U.S. policy remains frozen. And, because of the siege mentality our embargo has created inside Cuba, our sanctions may today be the main pillar of Castro’s power.

And there is monumental hypocrisy in how President Clinton applies his sanctions policy. He blockaded, starved and invaded tiny Haiti for human rights violations, but he proudly chaperones China into the WTO. He imposes sanctions on Myanmar as a threat to the security of the United States, but shovels billions in aid to a North Korea that is building missiles to target America and our allies.

In recent years, President Clinton has sought waivers on many of these sanctions, not because his administration has any scruples about sanctions, but because Europeans have repeatedly protested Washington’s arrogance in unilaterally imposing its will.

But if these sanctions enrage Europeans, think of their impact on the nations that suffer. It is child’s play for targeted regimes to ascribe all the deprivations of their people to U.S. malice and power. Their propaganda task is made easier, because the charge has truth. Our sanctions are sowing seeds of hatred that will one day flower in acts of terrorism against us, years after these sanctions expire.

Looking over the record of U.S. sanctions against rogue states, it seems that they fail us by virtually every measure. Sanctions impose suffering not on dictators, but on their oppressed people; they antagonize allies and undermine our leadership; they build up deposits of resentment and hatred against us among Arab, Islamic and Asian people; they deny our businessmen and farmers access to markets our rivals rush to capture; and they fail either to disarm or dislodge the targeted regime. They only massage our sense of moral superiority over other nations.

I do not oppose sanctions because I worry principally about our lost exports, though the economic arguments of U.S. businessmen who fight a sanctions-driven policy are persuasive. I do not oppose sanctions because I am worried about the reaction of European businessmen and diplomats who resent America’s efforts to apply our laws to their activities. I oppose them because sanctions have become a way for the United States to vent its anger on the cheap.

Among my first acts as President will be to declare an end to all sanctions on the sale or transfer of U.S. food, medicine, or goods essential to a decent life or a civilian economy now in force against Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar, Sudan, and all the other targeted nations of U.S. sanctions policy.

I am not naive. I have served three Cold War Presidents in the White House. I know that if U.S. sanctions are lifted, our problems with rogue regimes will not end. After we wipe the slate clean, there may arise circumstances in which sanctions appear the only possible action. No president can forswear the option. But if they are to be reapplied, I will understand what the world used to know: that embargoes and blockades are weapons of war. If they are to be used, they must be designed so that innocent people are not the principal casualties; and they should be imposed only on regimes that engage in acts of war against the United States. That a regime is autocratic, dictatorial, or odious to us is not enough; no one has deputized America to play Wyatt Earp to the world.

There are other ways to punish rogue regimes. We can seize the bank accounts and overseas assets of their rulers, deny visas to their diplomats and military, cut off World Bank and IMF loans, deny Export-Import Bank credits, put tariffs on the principal exports of hostile governments to deny them the hard currency to strengthen the state. We can deny their national airlines landing rights.

In retaliation for attacks on U.S. citizens, the United States, the most powerful nation on earth, can retaliate militarily as we see fit. We can indict terrorists in U.S. courts and run them down. These are legitimate sanctions that zero in on real enemies.

Once, we knew how to deal with tyrants, even tyrants armed with nuclear weapons. Deterrence and containment worked against the evil empires of Stalin and Mao. They can work against the lesser tyrannies of a new century.

As we end this American Century and this decade of national preeminence, we remain a people divided over our role in the world. It is a time for what Catholics call a “retreat,” not a withdrawal into isolationism, but a day of introspection. Why is America, its economic and military power unrivaled, its popular culture dominant in the world, so resented by so many. Is it envy? Is it because we are an enlightened nation and they are benighted? Or have we, too, succumbed to the hubris of hegemony? Recall: In 1763, the England of Pitt had crushed her great rival, France, seized her vast American estate, and emerged as the world’s only superpower. London reveled in its preeminence. As Walpole wrote, his contemporaries were “born with Roman insolence” and “acted with more haughtiness than an Asiatic monarch.”

Yet, in less than a generation, Britain had lost the loyalty of its American subjects, who, aided by a defeated vengeful France, expelled her from the 13 colonies that had been the crown jewels of the empire. And all the world rejoiced in Britain’s humiliation, as, one suspects, much of today’s world might rejoice in ours.

I count myself a patriot. But if all this Beltway braying about our being the “world’s indispensable nation” and “only superpower” grates on my ears, how must it grate upon Europeans, Russians, and those peoples subject to U.S. sanctions, because they have failed by our lights to live up to our standards?

The great foreign policy question before this generation is the one that has bedeviled us since our birth as a nation. Are we to be a city on a Hill, a light unto the nations, Henry Clay’s “lamp burning on the Western shore”? Or have we been handed a divine commission to “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy” and impose our values and system on a benighted world? Are we a republic or an empire?

Once again, it is time to choose.

We are in a unique season. The last Hanukkah of the century is over; the last Ramadan and Christmas season of the millennium are underway. On this eve of a new century, let us cease to hector and discipline the world and try to lead it; let us conform our foreign policy to principles more becoming a Godly nation and great republic.