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War by any other means, by Scott Sumner

Pierre Lemieux has an excellent post discussing President Trump’s decision to call off the military strike on Iran.  Like Pierre, I welcome this decision.  However, I’d like to point out that there is a sense in which we are already at war with Iran.

Trump’s decision to place increasingly tight economic sanctions on Iran, and also to punish any third country that trades with Iran, is effectively an act of economic warfare.  It is intended to severely damage the Iranian economy.  And economic sanctions don’t just have economic effects, they kill.

Early studies of the impact of previous American sanctions on Iraq estimated excess deaths at as high as 1 million.  It turns out that these initial estimates were probably too high, but even later estimates were quite horrific.  Here’s The Nation:

The two most reliable scientific studies on sanctions in Iraq are the 1999 report “Morbidity and Mortality Among Iraqi Children,” by Columbia University’s Richard Garfield, and “Sanctions and Childhood Mortality in Iraq,” a May 2000 article by Mohamed Ali and Iqbal Shah in The Lancet. Garfield, an expert on the public-health impact of sanctions, conducted a comparative analysis of the more than two dozen major studies that have analyzed malnutrition and mortality figures in Iraq during the past decade. He estimated the most likely number of excess deaths among children under five years of age from 1990 through March 1998 to be 227,000. Garfield’s analysis showed child mortality rates double those of the previous decade.

I don’t wish to replay debates about who is to blame for all this; I am fully aware that Saddam Hussein invaded two other countries, tried to annex territory, and then used poison gas on minorities within his own country.  If one ever wanted to use a Hitler analogy, Saddam would be one of the least bad choices.  Rather my point here is technical.  If we use economic sanctions, we will end up killing children.  It is effectively an act of war, and we need to understand that.

Sanctions can also lead to military escalation.  Some historians believe that the US sanctions placed on Japan contributed to Japan’s decision to bomb Pearl Harbor.  It seems plausible that Trump’s decision to put sanctions on Iran might have contributed to some recent strikes in the Persian Gulf.

Just to be clear, I don’t believe the Iran sanctions will lead to nearly as large a loss of life as the Iraq sanctions.  For all its many faults, the Iranian government is not as cruel and inept as Saddam’s regime.  Nonetheless, there is abundant evidence that health is positively correlated with wealth, and sanctions will certainly make Iran poorer.

I am also not saying that we should never use sanctions, just as I am not claiming that we should never use military force.  We may wish to deter aggressive nations.  But we should be very judicious in the use of sanctions, just as with the use of force.  I worry that sanctions are viewed as a “non-violent” or antiseptic alternative to warfare.  They may be less bad than the outright use of force, but only marginally so.

In my view, the administration did not present sufficient evidence that Iran was violating the nuclear agreement negotiated by President Obama to justify the draconian sanctions that are currently being imposed.

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