Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: Keep up the Sanctions

David Newton, who once had the ear of now U.S. Vice-President Richard Cheney in the late 1980s, when Cheney was Secretary of Defense, advises the U.S. and the rest of the world to keep the economic sanctions on Iraq.

“This is my personal view,” he made clear to the packed auditorium. Newton, the first U.S. ambassador to Iraq after the resumption of relations with Saddam’s regime in the 1980s, was the keynote speaker of a colloquium commemorating ten years since the Gulf War. The event was held by the Jewish-Arab Center, with sponsorship by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

As Prof. Amatzia Baram, head of the Jewish-Arab Center and one of the free world’s foremost experts on modern Iraq, remarked, the gathering was taking place “ten years and a day” since the start of that conflict. “It’s deja vue. Almost the same players and the scenario is not so different, with Saddam threatening Israel again and his vice-president saying that Kuwait is part of Iraq.”

Newton’s gave two cogent reasons for maintaining the sanctions: One, they exert financial control on Saddam’s revenues, which he would otherwise use to rearm. Two, they restrict the import not only of military equipment but also of material that could be used for warfare instead of peaceful purposes. He gave the example of chlorine, which ostensibly is for water purification, but can also be made into a chemical (gas) weapon.

Newton admitted there are leaks in the U.S.-led sanctions, but thinks they are not large enough to enable Iraq to rearm in a dangerous fashion. The former ambassador, who in 1989 received the U.S. President’s Award for his service in Iraq and was an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Operation Dessert Storm, now heads Radio Free Iraq, run out of Prague.

He referred to the debate in Washington on the ability of Iraqi opposition groups to overthrow Saddam Hussein. It involves almost the same cast of characters today that it did ten years ago: Donald Rumsfeld, now Secretary of Defense, was for a forceful option at the time. Cheney and Colin Powell, now Secretary of Defense and then Chief of Staff, are “pragmatic, cautious.” The President is, of course, the then-President’s son, but Newton did not speculate how George W. Bush would behave.

A decade ago, the retired official explained, U.S. policy was not to go to Baghdad. The Administration’s expectation was that Saddam was doomed, that his own military would overthrow him. That, however, he emphasized, was not its strategy.

The sanctions, he pointed out, were designed originally to be applied for a short time. Saddam’s refusal to hand over all weapons of mass destruction led to the adoption of a strategy to continue with the sanctions.

According to Amatzia Baram, Saddam has employed bribery to wear down the American embargo. He has offered Russia, which now wants to lift the sanctions, $10 billion in business deals and oil trade. Realizing that he needs Arab support to defeat the embargo, Saddam has been working on the poorer Arab countries, for instance by selling them oil at half price.

Deflating some of the ex post facto bravado, Baram doubts whether Israel, which was and is “a convenient whipping boy,” could have eliminated Saddam. “The U.S. failed to do so,” he reminded the audience.

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