Busting sanctions

April 18, 2003

AT FIRST GLANCE it would seem that President Bush's call for the lifting of sanctions against Iraq makes perfect sense. The regime's gone, and with it the crime that led to sanctions in the first place. No?

Well, maybe. The problem is that the system of sanctions put in place after the first Persian Gulf war, and modified in 1995 to allow food for oil, is the means by which the United Nations engages with Iraq. Because of the sanctions, all of Iraq's oil sales and oil revenues are supposed to be handled by the United Nations. Not too surprisingly, the other members of the Security Council are not now keen to hand over that responsibility to the United States alone.

So sanctions - which in and of themselves no longer make much sense - become the tool by which the rest of the world can wield some influence over the shaping of Iraq's future. And even though it was American and British soldiers who did all the fighting, keeping the rest of the world in the loop on Iraq would, in the long run, actually be a good thing.

It's true enough that the United Nations didn't do a very good job of running the sanctions. A lot of oil was smuggled out of Iraq - as this week's revelation of a semi-secret pipeline to Syria makes clear - and a considerable amount of the revenue was diverted by Saddam Hussein's government toward its own distasteful uses.

But the sanctions provide the only sort of legal framework that exists right now.

Very soon, the Bush administration is going to realize that the assistance of other nations will be crucial to building a decent country. It's true in Kosovo and it's true in Afghanistan. Stiffing the United Nations and unilaterally violating the sanctions regime would cause no end of headaches - and mark the United States as something of a rogue nation.

By the same token, the members of the Security Council (France, for instance, and Russia) are going to have to realize that clinging to sanctions simply as a way to thwart the United States won't be very productive, either.

At the moment, though, each side seems intent on heading for a showdown. Maybe they're simply staking out positions before the serious haggling commences. But if that's not the case, yet another diplomatic train wreck could be in the offing - one that might actually do more lasting damage to the world body, and to international relations, than the war itself.

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