WILL economic sanctions force Saddam Hussein to recoil? The question is pressing, given President Bush's efforts to secure a timetable for Iraqi withdrawal and the continuing United States military buildup in the Gulf.
The worldwide embargo of Iraq hurts the Iraqi economy, experts agree, but there is broad disagreement over how long international sanctions can be sustained, and if they alone can force a change in Iraq's behavior.
``The sanctions' impact on Iraq's economy is draconian,'' says Kimberly Elliott, a research associate with the Institute for International Economics in Washington. They were imposed so swiftly and comprehensively, she says, Iraq had no time to build stockpiles or look for alternate sources of imports.
Choking Iraq's single-source economy is particularly easy, she says, because 90 percent of its export earnings are derived from oil. ``Oil export is easily monitored and interdicted,'' she says, adding ``squeezing Iraqi income helps the embargo more, because smugglers don't take credit or charge discount prices.''
Ms. Elliott contends she's like an increasing number of government officials and private citizens who are ``not clear what our policy is. Will we allow time for the sanctions to work, which may take a year, or have we given up?''
She hopes Bush will defer taking advantage of the so-called ``window of opportunity'' - fighting a war against Iraq before spring 1991, when the hot weather becomes forbidding and a constant stream of Islamic holy days are sure to exacerbate tensions caused by Western military presence. ``In a full year, if we maintain sanctions at maximum force, economic deprivation will probably force Iraq's withdrawal of troops from Kuwait.'' If Iraq doesn't budge, says Elliott, ``we'll still have that window, this time next year.''
Outlying areas feel pinch
Iraqis are already frustrated by shortages, says Laurie Mylroie, co-author of ``Saddam Hussein and the Crisis in the Gulf,'' published this fall. ``There were food riots in Mosul [northern Iraq] on Sept. 12 and as recent as two weeks ago. Food is much more scarce in the countryside than in Baghdad,'' she says.
According to a US government agricultural economist, until Aug. 2, Iraq imported almost 80 percent of its food. ``Two quick blink outs are sugar and cooking oil; they're in very short supply. I understand they're trying to make sweeteners from dates,'' he says. How long the Iraqis can endure sanctions depends on how much the government reduces rations, the amount of stockpiles Iraq brought back from Kuwait, and how much food can be smuggled through, he says.
``Before Aug. 2, Iraq consumed 350,000 tons of wheat, monthly; rationing has dropped it to 250,000 or so. In July, Iraq registered 805,000 tons of wheat stocks and another 800,000 in production. Unless Iraq stocked up before invading Kuwait, those stocks are rapidly declining.'' The economist remembers the first nine months of 1980, when Iraq noticeably tripled its food imports, in anticipation of war with Iran later that year. He doubts if the now cash-strapped Iraq prepared for its Kuwait invasion in the same fashion.
A month's supply of powdered milk, a two-month supply of beef, and a year's supply of jam were among the bounty from Kuwait. ``They're doing an excellent job of displaying goods pillaged in Kuwait on store shelves in Baghdad. They're portraying an opulent atmosphere'' which is far from the truth, he says.
``The outlying areas are feeling the pinch. In northern Iraq, a farmer is given the death penalty if he stores anything instead of sending it to market. He'll be shot on the spot.''
By contrast, soldiers in Kuwait are emptying gourmet food shelves, ``feasting on what's there,'' he says. One recent meal, he reports, was roast antelope from the Kuwait Zoo.
Ms. Mylroie says sanctions alone won't thwart Saddam. He will do his best to mitigate public discontent over daily hardships, with brute force if necessary.
Today, Saddam doesn't have the cushion of imports and spending he had during the eight-year war with Iran when store shelves were well stocked and social welfare programs were in place, but he is still sensitive to public outrage, Mylroie says. This was obvious when Saddam fired his oil minister last month for imposing petrol rationing due to fuel-additives shortages. ``There was too much popular anger, so he made a scapegoat out of the oil minister, who's now missing. Today, there's unofficial rationing, with a lot of closed petrol stations and shorter hours for others,'' Mylroie says.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this week, former Defense Secretary and CIA director James Schlesinger was bullish on the Iraq sanctions. A UN-backed embargo will in all probability force Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait and the restoration of the Kuwaiti government within the next year, he said.
Henry Kissinger later told the same committee that sanctions will fall short of Bush's stated goal of Saddam Hussein's withdrawal from Kuwait. ``The best sanctions can do is initiate negotiations, but they will not get us to our objectives,'' he said. The two former officials, among others who testified, acknowledged that crystallized international support for sanctions is imperative if they are to have any effect.