However, the devastation of Iraq in the service of limiting proliferation did not begin with the war in 2003. For the previous 13 years, that country had suffered under economic sanctions, visited upon it by both Democratic and Republican administrations, that were designed to force the evil, if pathetic, Saddam Hussein from office (and, effectively, from life, since he had no viable sanctuary elsewhere) and to keep the country from developing weapons, particularly nuclear ones. The goals certainly had their admirable side, but, as multiple studies have shown, the sanctions proved to be a necessary cause (another is the administrative practices of Saddam’s regime) of hundreds of thousands of deaths in the country, most of them children under the age of five–the most innocent of civilians.

The additional deaths are attributed to inadequate food and medical supplies (between 1990 and 1996, pharmaceuticals were allowed in at only 10 percent of 1989 levels) as well as breakdowns in sewage and sanitation systems and in the electrical power systems needed to run them–systems destroyed by bombing in the 1991 Gulf War that had often gone unrepaired due to sanctions-enhanced shortages of money, equipment, and spare parts. It was not until 1998–nearly eight years after sanctions began–that Iraq was allowed to buy material for rebuilding its agricultural sector, water supply facilities, oil fields, and once impressive medical system. Furthermore, imports of some desperately needed materials were delayed or denied because of concerns that they might contribute to Iraq’s WMD programs. Supplies of syringes were held up for half a year because of fears they might be used in creating anthrax spores. Chlorine, an important water disinfectant, was not allowed into the country because it might be diverted into making chlorine gas, the first chemical weapon used in World War I but later abandoned when more effective ones were developed. Cancer soared because requested radiotherapy equipment, chemotherapy drugs, and analgesics were often blocked. Medical diagnostic techniques that make use of radioactive particles, once common in Iraq, were banned under the sanctions, and plastic bags needed for blood transfusions restricted. The sanctioners were wary throughout about allowing the importation of fertilizers and insecticides, fearing their use for WMD production, and as a result, disease-carrying pests that might have been controlled proliferated. Similarly restricted at times were cotton, ambulances, and pencils.

Policy makers were clearly aware of the effect the sanctions were having. As Robert Gates, George H. W. Bush’s deputy national secretary adviser put it in 1991, while Saddam remains in power, “Iraqis will pay the price.” One might have imagined that the people carrying out this policy with its horrific and well-known consequences would from time to time have been queried about whether the results were worth the costs. To my knowledge, this happened only once, on television’s 60 Minutes on May 12, 1996. Madeleine Albright, then the American ambassador to the United Nations, was asked, “We have heard that a half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima . . . Is the price worth it?” Albright did not dispute the number and acknowledged it to be “a very hard choice.” But, she concluded, “we think the price is worth it,” pointing out that because of sanctions Saddam had come “cleaner on some of these weapons programs” and had recognized Kuwait.

In her memoirs, Albright, who later had been promoted to Secretary of State, frankly [sic] recalls of the incident, “As soon as I had spoken, I wished for the power to freeze time and take back those words. Nothing matters more than the lives of innocent people. I had fallen into the trap and said something I did not mean.” Presumably what was mistaken and wrong about the reply was not its content, but the fact she said it, because she continued to support the sanctions even while knowing (and publicly acknowledging) they were a necessary cause of the deaths of large numbers of “innocent people.” Obviously, something did matter more to her than the lives of such people.”

A Lexis-Nexis search suggests that Albright’s remarkable dismissal on a prominent television show of the devastation sanctions had inflicted on innocent Iraqi civilians went completely unremarked upon by the country’s media. In the Middle East, by contrast, it was widely and repeatedly covered and noted. Among the outraged was Osama bin Laden, who repeatedly used the punishment that sanctions were inflicting on Iraqi civilians as a centerpiece in his many diatribes against what he considered to be heartless and diabolical American policy in the area.

This is from John Mueller, Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda, Oxford University Press, 2010.