Lessons of the Duelfer Report

In the final report on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, the case of the missing weapons has once again became fodder for the presidential campaign over whether the Iraq war was right or wrong.

But the report also holds a lesson for the next president and Congress on whether sanctions in general can work. Such lessons might be particularly useful in the looming confrontation with Iran and North Korea.

The main finding of the top US arms inspector for Iraq, Charles Duelfer, was that his team couldn't find any major weapons stockpiles in Iraq and that Mr. Hussein had not kept an active capability to resume his chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons program.

The reason Hussein gave up his weapons program, the report concludes, is that the UN-sponsored embargo of oil exports denied him the billions and billions of dollars needed to keep them going. But in order to maintain prestige among Arabs and deter another war with Iran, Hussein kept secret for many years that he had abandoned the programs.

He also tried to undermine the sanctions by exploiting the UN's Oil for Food program. He bribed leading figures in the UN, France, China, Russia and elsewhere with oil-export contracts to earn more than $11 billon to keep his regime afloat.

In essence, the sanctions' purpose of forcing full inspections of Iraq was failing because Hussein used foreign commercial interests to get money. That explains why many Security Council members wanted to weaken them. The report says Hussein turned the embargo into "a paper tiger."

"It is ... grossly obvious how the sanctions perverted not just the [Iraqi] national system of finance and economics, but to some extent the international markets and organizations," it stated.

With sanctions greatly weakened and, as the report confirmed, Hussein seeking to resume chemical-weapons production once they were lifted, the US decided to oust his regime.

The key lesson in all this is that most major nations need to fully sign on to sanctions for them to succeed. Over the decades, sanctions have sometimes worked - with Libya and South Africa, for instance. Iraq is a case where sanctions had temporarily defanged a tyrant, but the tyrant didn't want to show they did.

Another lesson is that the rise of globalized markets makes sanctions even more difficult to impose.

As the US asks allies and friends to put more and more economic pressure on Iran and North Korea, these lessons are worth keeping in mind.

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