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Pencils and Sanction Deaths

Hello, all. I've been following the recent discussion that erupted on the 
list with some interest, but was unable to respond because I was wrapping 
up the first draft of a book on the war on terrorism. I just finished that 
on Friday.

As always, I deeply value Colin's encylopedic knowledge of Iraq, something 
from which I have benefited on more than one occasion. More broadly, I 
admire CASI's commitment to very serious analytical work, something which 
helps the whole anti-sanctions movement. More and more of us in the States, 
when we have to give an interested person just one website to find out 
everything about the sanctions, give them CASI's.

I do have one question for Colin and one serious disagreement.

1. Pencils: There was an excellent article in the New York Times some years 
back by Stephen Kinzer, called "Smart Bombs, Dumb Sanctions." It's on the 
web at

In it he quotes Farid Zarif, deputy director of the U.N. humanitarian aid 
program at the time, as saying pencils are forbidden because the graphite 
could be extracted to make radar-evading coatings for airplanes (like in 
the B-2 stealth bomber). Colin, are you aware of this article, and how do 
you think it jibes with your analysis of pencils posted on the CASI 
discussion list archives? I suppose it's possible Zarif was misled like 
others, but I'd like to know what you think.

2. Numbers: I would respectfully disagree with those who think 
number-mongering with dead children is morbid and distasteful. It is those 
things, but I think it's also essential. You sometimes hear people say, "If 
even one child has died from the sanctions, ..." -- a statement with little 
meaning because you can't look at a society of 20+ million over ten years 
and even say there has been one excess death, let alone attribute it to a 
specific policy. The scale is wrong. More important, you are always 
implicitly comparing alternatives. If sanctions had killed a few thousand 
people and Saddam's invasion of Kuwait had killed 500,000, the entire 
discourse about this subject would perforce be very different. So the order 
of magnitude of the number is crucial. Whether it is 400,000 or 500,000 is 
less relevant, but that should not be interpreted, as it often is, as 
license to continually downsize the number to be maximally cautious.

All that said, I disagree strongly with Colin's claim that we should not 
attribute any number dead to the sanctions, because UNICEF specifically 
avoids doing so and because, obviously, any result, whether number of 
deaths or number of goats raised, is multicausal. That is, I think, a 
recipe for political and intellectual paralysis. Short of a case where 
someone gets a bullet in the head, it's always difficult to impossible to 
disentangle all causative factors. Some of Colin's arguments -- especially 
saying that some of the dead are due to the continuing effects of the Gulf 
War, not the sanctions -- I must say are sheer sophistry. When you say "the 
effects of sanctions" you mean "the effects of sanctions as re-levied on 
Iraq after the Gulf War when the infrastructure was destroyed." There is no 
hypothetical decontextualized "effects of sanctions." And, of course, the 
targeting in the Gulf War was deliberately done to intensify the effects of 

To control for other variables,  the most sensible thing to do, as noted by 
many, is compare with pre-Gulf War conditions and even, as the UNICEF 
number does, with extrapolated trendlines. The only meaningful, potentially 
addressable question there is "how much could the Iraqi government reduce 
the number of deaths with different policies." From what I have seen, they 
have not followed the most sensible policies, partly because they were 
committed to a high-tech, resource-intensive public health system and 
partly because Iraqis, unlike many others, are not used to chronic 
malnutrition. Still, I doubt one could conclude that they could have cut 
the number of deaths by any very great number. In any case, if they could 
have, it's not because of gross malfeasance but because of lack of 
competence with a catastrophe totally beyond their experience.

It is also absolutely necessary to give people, especially in the United 
States, some kind of number so they get a feel for the scope of the 
problem. Individual stories reach people more deeply, but they must be 
complemented with the big picture to get serious attempts at policy change.

I also have no problem with the 600,000 children under 5 figure. UNICEF 
found 500,000 in 8 years, 1991-8. The death rate has certainly come down, 
but to add a mere 100,000 in three years seems like a rather conservative 

Here's what I generally say:

Although there is great debate about the number killed by the sanctions, 
the most authoritative results come from a UNICEF survey published in 
August 1999. Based on an extensive household study, it concluded that from 
1991-98 excess death of children under 5 added up to 500,000. In the three 
years since, although the rate of death has come down substantially, it 
would be if anything conservative to estimate that another 100,000 children 
under 5 died. Given the ratio usually reported between children under 5 and 
total deaths, it's safe to conclude that over 1 million Iraqis have died as 
a result of the sanctions.

In solidarity,

Rahul Mahajan

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