ALTHOUGH President Bush finally opted for war as the sole means of evicting Iraq from Kuwait, the success of sanctions in squeezing Iraq may have helped rehabilitate economic coercion as an effective tool of diplomacy. Because of its strategic location and extensive trade ties with the West, Iraq was especially vulnerable to international sanctions.
But experts say the lessons of Iraq could be applied in response to future aggression, especially in the third world, that is likely to be a chief source of instability in the postwar era.
``The Gulf crisis may make inroads on the sanctions-never-work mentality that prevailed before the war,'' says one Washington-based economist.
Meanwhile, the messy outcome of a war that has left Saddam in power, with enough military might to crush Shiite and Kurdish insurgencies, has prompted some diplomatic observers to question whether the United States-led coalition could have achieved better results at lower cost by relying on sanctions alone.
``Over time we're going to have to evaluate, are we better off with the outcome of the war than we might have been if we had [dealt with Saddam] in a slower, less dramatic way,'' says the Brookings Institution's Judith Kipper.
``If we had been able to show in Iraq that sanctions can work, we would have had a tool we could use in any kind of international situation where one country is an aggressor against another,'' says US Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois. ``As it is, it's not as proven a tool as we would have had if we'd stuck to sanctions.''
Questions of loyalty raised
The issue of sanctions has also been thrown into sharp relief because of questions raised by Republican Party and congressional leaders about the loyalty of senators who voted in January to extend the sanctions period before going to war. The debate over whether, given time, sanctions would have worked, is likely to spill over into the 1992 elections.
Economic sanctions were imposed on Iraq by the United Nations Aug. 6, just four days after Iraq invaded Kuwait. The embargo eventually led to food shortages and higher prices. By mid-September, food riots were reported in parts of rural Iraq.
Dependent on oil exports for virtually all of its foreign earnings and on imports for most of its food, Iraq was highly vulnerable to economic coercion. By the outbreak of the air campaign, Iraq's gross national product (GNP) had been cut in half, an economic impact 20 times higher than the average toll exacted by international sanctions applied since 1914, according to a recent study.
Despite the crippling effects of the embargo, President Bush opted for war on Jan. 16, fearful that the anti-Iraq coalition might unravel during the nine- to 15-month period experts predicted would be needed for sanctions to have maximum effect.
The decision to move militarily was reinforced by other considerations.
One was the reported ``leakage'' of food and supplies, especially across the Iranian border, that many experts predicted would sustain Iraq's ability to endure economic hardship.
Another concern was that, even if sanctions forced Saddam out of Kuwait, Iraq would emerge from the crisis with its weapons stockpiles intact, retaining the capacity to threaten regional security.
``One element that was driving the discrediting of sanctions and the need to go to military options was the [weapons] production sites,'' says Janne Nolan, author of a recently published book on the proliferation of ballistic missiles in the third world. ``It became the conventional wisdom that, even if there were a peaceful settlement, these production sites would remain.''
The Bush administration was also persuaded that as sanctions continued to bite, Saddam would turn the suffering of the Iraqi people into a public-relations spectacle, placing strains on the coalition and escalating demands to relax the embargo.
After the start of the war, the administration's argument that sanctions alone were insufficient was buttressed by the failure of weeks of bombing to force Saddam out of Kuwait.
``We saw the punishment Saddam Hussein took from the air war and the ground war before he capitulated,'' says Laurie Mylroie, an Iraq expert at the Washington Center for Near East Policy. ``The case for sanctions was very much weakened. Until the ground fighting began, Saddam wasn't dealing.''
``Historically, sanctions don't work except by intimidation,'' concludes a US official who monitored the boycott for the State Department.
But in the aftermath of the war some experts remain convinced that sanctions might have brought Saddam to his knees.
One of the ironies of the war, they say, is that it may actually have strengthened Saddam's resolve to resist, while neutralizing the public pressure on him, produced by economic hardship.
``The dynamics are different in a war situation,'' says Kimberly Elliott of the Institute for International Economics in Washington. ``The [Iraqi] population's willingness to absorb punishment is greater during a war than if sanctions had been allowed to run their course. The more gradual degradation imposed by the sanctions would have provided Saddam fewer opportunities for false heroics and might have avoided the rally-round-the-flag effect.''
Defenders of sanctions also take exception to the notion that Iraq could have been defanged militarily only by war.
They say that if economic pressure had forced Saddam out of power - or out of Kuwait - the coalition could have exacted arms concessions as the price for lifting sanctions.
``Presumably, with Saddam gone [as a result of popular discontent produced by sanctions] and with a new government, you could have worked out some verifiable system of dealing with nonconventional weapons,'' says Senator Simon.
Sanctions might also have gotten a fairer test if coupled with diplomatic pressure designed to convince Saddam directly that the US was serious about war if he refused to withdraw from Kuwait, Ms. Kipper notes.
``What would have happened if, on Aug. 2 or Aug. 3, the US had made its protest and sent ... a senior US official to Baghdad to bang on the table and demand an immediate withdrawal face-to-face?'' asks Kipper.
With or without more direct diplomatic pressure, sanctions may have worked by virtue of sheer economic weight, say advocates of extending the sanctions.
``Historically, when the GNP of a nation has been affected adversely by 3 percent you have a modification of policy,'' says Simon.
``The most we've ever affected a nation is 16 percent. In the case of Iraq it was 50 percent, and by spring it would have been 70 percent,'' says the senator.
``I think that there is every possibility that not only would we have had a withdrawal from Kuwait without massive loss of life, but you would have had enough economic pressure to overthrow Saddam,'' Simon concludes.
According to a report issued last December by the Institute for International Economics (IIE), economic sanctions have been employed 115 times since the start of World War I, with roughly a 35 percent ``success'' rate.
Sanctions helped destabilize the Dominican government of Rafael Trujillo in the 1960s, weakened the regime of Uganda's Idi Amin in the 1970s, and contributed to the decision of Poland's communist leader, Wojciech Jaruzelski, to release political prisoners and ease repression in the 1980s.
Sanctions against Iraq were effective because they met the most important criteria for success gleaned from the historical record by IIE researchers:
Sanctions were imposed so quickly and comprehensively that Iraq had no opportunity to build stockpiles and find alternative markets and sources of supply.
The nations imposing the sanctions had extensive-enough trade ties with iraq to have effective leverage. According to the IIE report, in countries where ``autocratic'' leaders have been effectively targeted, the nations applying sanctions have accounted for an average of 26 percent of total trade.
Massive trade dislocations
In the case of Iraq, the sanctioning countries accounted for nearly 100 percent of Iraq's trade and financial relations, causing massive economic dislocations.
Meanwhile, the ability of the international community to sustain sanctions over the long term was enhanced as Saudi Arabia pumped more oil to compensate for the boycott against Iraq and Kuwait, and as Western nations pledged money to compensate poorer countries, including Turkey, for the economic cost of suspending trade with Iraq.
But the Iraq experience also posed two problems which, according to the IIE study, have historically bedeviled efforts at economic coercion:
Sanctions have been most successful when policy goals have been defined modestly. But in Iraq the ambitious objective was to force Saddam to relinquish occupied territory.
In addition, the effect of sanctions has been blunted historically in countries, like Iraq, where political dissent is suppressed.
Duplication of the Iraq experience could prove difficult, experts say, since it will be hard to recreate the broad coalition that made sanctions against Iraq so effective.
Meanwhile, the success of arms against Iraq may make the use of military force a more attractive alternative against future aggressors.