Over 600 people saw Denis Halliday and Phyllis Bennis speak at Kane Hall at the UW last Monday, Feb. 15; the turnout was incredible, and latecomers were forced to stand or sit in the aisles. Halliday’s speech was important, because he has directly witnessed what the sanctions have done in Iraq.

Denis Halliday served for 34 years with the U.N. in various development projects around the world (Kenya, Iran, Malaysia, and all over Asia and the Pacific), and was appointed assistant U.N. Secretary General to coordinate the U.N.’s Humanitarian Relief effort in Iraq for 13 months in 1997 and 1998. He oversaw the Oil for Food program until he finally resigned in protest over the economic sanctions. Halliday is a native of Ireland and so brings an outsider’s perspective to the U.S.’s foreign policy goals in Iraq and the Middle East.

He made a useful distinction between the Oil for Food program and the sanctions. He was careful to say that the Oil for Food program has been a success in that the money from Oil sales made through the program has gone directly to buy food and medicines which have been distributed equitably throughout Iraq by U.N. teams. None of this money or these goods have gone to bolster Saddam Hussein or his government. Nevertheless, Halliday honestly pointed out that the Oil for Food program is a disaster in that it can’t meet the deep needs of a country that was bombed back to the Stone Age during the Gulf War, with the destruction of hospitals, sewage treatment plants, water pumping stations, factories that produce pharmaceuticals and veterinary supplies, oil extraction facilities, refineries, and agricultural infrastructure–in short, everything that any nation (including ours) would take for granted. In light of the poverty, disease, and collapse of infrastructure in Iraq, the Oil for Food program is a tiny band-aid on a hemorrhaging wound.

As a consequence, Halliday was very critical of the economic sanctions. He carefully outlined how the sanctions prevent legal trade by civilians and civilian businesses and the import of humanitarian goods, while allowing illegal trade to flourish on the black market, which more often than not enriches the very people the sanctions are supposed to punish: war profiteers, Saddam Hussein’s associates, Ba’ath party members, and criminals. The sanctions have destroyed Iraq’s middle class and created two widely separate societal strata: a vast civilian underclass struggling so hard to survive that it can’t mount an effective political opposition, and a wealthy upper class closely allied to Saddam’s government and his policies. In short, the sanctions have had the opposite effect from what they were intended to do: they’ve helped Saddam to consolidate his power.

Halliday went one step further in claiming that a fascist, anti-Western (particularly anti-U.S.), Islamic fundamentalist element may gain power in Iraq; he compared it to war-torn Afghanistan and the hard-line Taliban. There are a few problems with this analysis. First of all, Iraq has a highly educated population, a long history of Humanism, and a tradition of a liberal interpretation of Islam. Secondly, the Mujahadeen (of which the Taliban were one faction) were funded and supported by the CIA and wealthy fundamentalist elements in Saudi Arabia, and were allowed to fight their war from bases in Pakistan. If anything, the U.S. is having distinct problems with funding and supporting an opposition in Iraq, as our government is loathe to give too much support to the Kurds in northern Iraq. The Kurds have demanded and fought for an autonomous state for over 70 years, but to create this state would mean carving up Turkey, a traditional U.S. ally.

But what bothered me the most about Halliday’s speech was his mainstream solution to the conflict with Iraq. He would lift the sanctions, then offer $50 to $60 billion in credit–i.e., loans–to Iraq to rebuild its infrastructure. In a world where larger governments default on that much debt (as Russia did last August), and the price of Iraq’s main export (oil) has collapsed, that solution is no solution at all.

Phyllis Bennis, author and Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C., was the better speaker. She gave a useful history of the Gulf War conflict and the economic sanctions, especially the U.S.’s role in bribing other U.N. member nations and security council members to go along with the bombings and the sanctions. She made the important point that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait has numerous unpunished parallels around the world among U.S. allies (for example, Indonesia and East Timor, Turkey and Kurdistan, etc.). She also answered the question of “why Iraq?” with the simple but effective answer that Iran and Iraq are the only two nations in the Middle East that can potentially remain independent of the West and at the same time challenge U.S. hegemony in the region–they both are rich in resources, are agriculturally rich (and so can feed their own people), are large nations, and are strategically located. It’s no surprise that the U.S. maintains a hostile and destructive policy towards them.

Bennis, articulate and outspoken about opposing the inhumanity of the sanctions, also offered her own solution to the problem. She favors continued pressure by U.S. citizens against our government’s support for sanctions and the ongoing bombing of Iraq. Yet she also expressed hope for the United Nations, arguing that it’s the only institution that can and should govern the world in the 21st Century. This ignores the fact that the U.N. has been playing an increasingly weak role internationally, as corporate interests have made an end-run around it–particularly through the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the fledgling MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investments). And there are other former U.N. employees who’ve criticized the U.N. and its development projects for being big, bureaucratic, wasteful, environmentally destructive, and inefficient in alleviating poverty (although very efficient at diverting money to bankers, construction companies, engineers, and other professionals). We do, after all, live in a world full of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that end up doing a lot of the really dirty work that the U.N. can’t and won’t do.

Nevertheless, it was encouraging to see so many people show up to hear criticism about the sanctions against Iraq, to ask questions, and to offer their opinions. For every person that I recognized there (and there were a lot of people that I didn’t), I know of many, many more folks who are against U.S. policies towards Iraq. We should take this as a sign that public sentiment is changing, and we should push even harder now to end the bombings and the sanctions.