HOUSTON — There's a quaint expression, better known in Britain than here, for actual, or estimated, military casualties the butchers bill. Its size (for most governments) is an effective brake on recklessness; the more advanced the nation, the greater the horror of accruting a butchers bill.
Current Pentagon estimates of the butchers bill likely to be presented were Kuwait to be retaken by force are on the order of 25,000 (only the Air Force thinks it can do the bulk of the work while running up a smaller bill); the French think the bill (for both sides) might run to 100,000 an estimate also tendered by Saddam Hussein. And that doesnt even consider invading Iraq.
Since neither George Bush, nor anyone else in a responsible position, has any intention of incurring such a disastrous account, determination to do the job with sanctions is iron-clad. In the profusion of media verbiage, there has been remarkably little attention paid to Iraq's actual needs; what measure it can take to reduce those needs, and what it can actually do to meet them in short, how long can it really hold out? The best guesstimate was presented by The Economist in what it frankly admits is a back-of-the-envelope calculation.
The immediate impact of sanctioned, already at work, falls on exports. Iraq earned a full 95% of its foreign exchange $100 million a day from oil; that has now been choked off, and will stay choked. Inability to ship or pump oil abroad will inexorably drive Iraq into bankruptcy.
Sanctions have also, for the nonce, all but choked off Iraqi imports; of its five neighbors, only Jordans border remains open, but since ships headed for Jordans only port at Aqaba have Iraqi-bound cargoes stopped, Jordan is of little help. And with oil revenues, spare parts and raw materials all blocked, the Iraqi economic plant is hobbled; factories are slowing and will soon be closing, constantly adding to unemployment.
Saddam Hussein already wields the sword of Hunger, busily slashing about with both edges. He boasts Iraq can hold out even if we have to eat mud while strumming foreign nerves with publicity about rationing, starving children and foreign hostages.
Flour, rice, sugar, tea, oils and soap are already rationed; meat, oddly enough, is not. This makes for shorter commons than the British were subject to in World War II and foreigners dont even hold ration cards. Never mind the few thousand American, British and European hostages one million Egyptians are also stuck in Iraq or Kuwait, not to mention 450 thousand Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans all with stomachs the same size as ours.
Iraq imported 80% of its food, but maintained ample stockpiles; shut off completely, the populace could still survive two months. It has now added all manner of supplies looted from Kuwait enough to last a further two months and the 1990 harvest (wheat, rice and barley) will sustain Iraq yet another two months.
That means a minimum of six months at normal consumption levels and (since rationing will tighten) perhaps eight months before the pinch really starts to hurt. Smuggling overland borders (Turkey, Syria, Jordan) of sugar, oils, tea and produce (all favored smuggler commodies) will hardly smash the blockade, but will decidedly alleviate the pinchs pain. (And smuggling cant be stopped; illegal Supply systems will always respond to Demand, no matter what authorities do vide drugs over here.)
Hussen, moreover, might well be able to punch an impressive hole in the blockade by an airlift. (In 1948, an airlift kept West Berlins 2 million people supplied with food, fuel and all necessities for a full 10 months). Iraq (and Kuwait) can muster 78 cargo aircraft, which could, conservatively, fly in another four months food during the next eight months from Libyas Tripoli.
That would be hard to stop, even with the current air embargo; even the impressive AWACS and military air forces now concentrated in the Gulf cant cover the entire Mideast and even if every cargo aircraft were intercepted by a fighter what then? Hussein can be reasonably certain they wont be shot down. The only way to plug that hole would be to blockade all shipping into Libya which the current Grand Alliance might well balk at.
Iraq, in short, is not likely to be starved out in anything under eight months or so and might well last a year or more. The economic consequences of the blockade are far more likely to decide the issue long before food does and the cost of continuing the current effort an entire year might be a disatrous for some of the blockading nations as they would be for Iraq.
Donald R. Morris, a retired naval officer, syndicates a column.