Monday, April 9, 2012

Post #238 - War and Sanctions, Sanctions and War

Doug Hostetter is a peace activist, professor, photojournalist, peace pastor, and UN civil society activist. He has a distinguished record of service in the U.S. peace movement and in humanitarian work in Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Balkans. A Mennonite who lived and worked in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, Doug has held a variety of staff positions with the Mennonite Central Committee, the United Methodist Office for the United Nations, the American Friends Service Committee and the Fellowship of Reconciliation for more than three decades.

Remember History: No Sanctions, No War
by Doug Hostetter

The US has imposed sanctions on Iran. Will this lead to war with Iran? Recent history should cause us to be concerned that the pattern of sanctions and war with Iraq will be repeated with Iran. As someone who spent three years of alternative service in Vietnam during that war, I carry the reality of war in my heart and mind and want to remind us that sanctions can lead to war, and sanctions can be as deadly as war. Lest we forget.

Vietnam opened my eyes to the reality of war. I worked with children's literacy in a small village whose schools had been destroyed by the US Air Force. During that time, I witnessed firsthand the consequences of war. In the Vietnam War, over 2 million Vietnamese were killed and 58,000 Americans died in combat. So many lives lost to violence. Yet, war continues long after the last bullet has been fired. For every civilian death, there are three to four people wounded, many more displaced and traumatized. The post-combat trauma of military personnel creates veteran homelessness, suicide, addiction, depression and other social and psychological issues that persist for decades.

In addition, in Vietnam I learned that war leaves immense environmental scars. The defoliant Agent Orange destroyed people and land in Vietnam as well as the servicemen who did the spraying. The disease that arose from Agent Orange was transmitted to the next generation, like radiation sickness. Every war has its own brand of environmental destruction. War also degrades the moral fiber of a society as Martin Luther King, Jr. warned in his speech, Beyond Vietnam: "The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit...and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy." MLK would have mentioned Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran in his list of concerns if he were alive today.

Perhaps you think sanctions are a good alternative to war. I learned from my visits to Iraq with The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) that sanctions are also deadly, and can be considered a form of warfare as well. Sanctions are very problematic instruments of persuasion. On the one hand, sanctions have not proven to be an effective means of changing government behavior. They mostly strengthen governing elites, since they have alternative modes of accessing goods and services than the general population. (Witness Fidel Castro and the more than 50 year sanctions on Cuba). On the other hand, sanctions always hurt innocent members of a targeted population. If the sanctions are comprehensive and widely supported by other nations, sanctions can destroy the economy of almost any nation, causing hunger, increased poverty, lack of access to water, electricity, medicine and building supplies that endangers the health and welfare of people on the ground.

The US has a history of using sanctions that lead up to war. After Iraq invaded Kuwait, the UN imposed crippling sanctions on Iraq to force Iraq's withdraw from Kuwait. The UN sanctions covered all imports and exports with one small exception: Iraq was allowed to sell a small UN-controlled amount of oil to pay for medicine and food. US sanctions prohibited Americans from selling or giving food to Iraq, making it hard for aid agencies to serve vulnerable populations. After the first Iraq War -- a five week bombing campaign followed by a four day ground assault -- Iraq withdrew from Kuwait. Nonetheless, comprehensive sanctions were left in place to force Iraq to pay reparations to Kuwait and to disclose and eliminate all weapons of mass destruction. The sanctions were kept in place for 12 years and the US used the possible existence of WMDs as the justification for the Second Iraq War. A UNICEF study done in 1999 found that at least 500,000 children died as a result of the first 8 years of the Iraqi sanctions!

After the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the US hostage crisis, the US government froze Iranian assets in the US and prohibited sale of military equipment and spare parts for any aircraft, including the American made fleet of civilian airliners that the revolutionary government inherited from the Shah. As a result, there has been an increase in civilian deaths from plane crashes because Iran is unable to obtain replacement parts for aging American planes. Currently, the US is trying to institute comprehensive UN sanctions of Iran by using the fear of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. The US and the European Union have decided to impose crippling economic sanctions of Iran through threats to withhold US trade opportunities in the US and the EU with any company who trades with the Iranian Central Bank, essentially closing down most international commerce for Iran. These actions have caused the value of the Iranian rial (the country's currency) to drop 15 fold, increasing the price of imported food and medicine more than 15 times the normal price. Although sanctions will not likely have much effect on Iran's leaders and may even strengthen their position, we know from experience that this will have a devastating effect on the most vulnerable of the population - children, the sick and the elderly will die as a result of these sanctions. Will another half a million people die? Or more?

Unfortunately, governments are usually quite willing to sacrifice the weak and the vulnerable to achieve their political goals. Journalist Lesley Stahl confronted US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on the effect of the Iraqi sanctions on the US television show, 60 Minutes: "We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?" To which Secretary of State Albright replied: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price--we think the price is worth it."

The world has too much at stake morally and economically. We cannot support either war or crippling sanctions of Iran. As Americans we must demand that our government renew dialogue and negotiations with Iran on all issues of concern to either country.

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