Justin Raimondo is on vacation. Today we present an appropriate classic from April, 1998, reprinted from the Ludwig von Mises Institute publication, The Free Market. Justin’s regular column will return on Wednesday.

Among the conventional weapons in the arsenal of the modern Warfare State, none is crueler or more indiscriminate than economic sanctions. While a bomb, missile, or other military ordnance can devastate an entire neighborhood in a moment, the slow death of economic strangulation can so degrade an entire people that they are reduced to a pre-civilizational state, modern savages living at a subsistence level.

This psychological and spiritual degeneration is nothing less than a war crime, a “crime against humanity.” In our century, the U.S. has instigated and led, often alone, the practice of starving foreign nations. It was crystallized in Woodrow Wilson’s theory that sanctions are a “peaceful, silent, deadly remedy” against recalcitrant foreigners that replace the “need for force."

Wilson’s sanctions, like conscription, are marks of total war. It involves whole civilian populations on both sides and deprives them of their essential rights to liberty and property. The soldiers’ wars of old, writes Ludwig von Mises, were shorter and less destructive because armies fought it out among themselves, leaving civilian populations alone. Even during the American Revolution, historian Josef Dorfman notes, “trading with the enemy” was common. War strategists figured trade was the best way of compensating civilians on both sides for the economic damage of war.

Sanctions represent the opposite of a just war: from wars that only involved soldiers, we have moved to wars that only involve civilians. The concept of economic sanctions as a weapon also assumes international economic regulations and enforcement agencies, setting up a cadre of bureaucrats who sit in judgment of “outlaw nations”: in effect, the apparatus of world economic planners. And contrary to Wilson’s predictions, real war has often followed the use of sanctions.

The long-run consequences of economic sanctions on a nation such as Iraq, for example, will far outweigh the more obvious damage done by a U.S. bombing campaign. UN enforcer Richard Butler cast the dispute as a test of wills with broad importance. As the Washington Post reported it, Iraq is “a test case for international efforts to guarantee a more civilized life.'” What is being tested is a method of mass murder, comparable in scope to the famine unleashed by Stalin against several million kulaks. After six years of a near-total economic embargo, the once thriving Iraqi middle class has ceased to exist, and a country once proud of its modernity is being dragged down into the lowest rungs of the Third World.

More than one-third of Iraqi children are malnourished, on a level with sub-Saharan Africa. In the name of “international peace,” more than one million Iraqis have died as a direct result of the sanctions, 567,000 of them children. Some 4,500 children under age five are dying each month from hunger and disease. Condemned by U.S. and UN planners to a starvation diet, little children have suffered a six-fold mortality rate increase since the onset of sanctions.

The lack of spare parts has crippled not only the transportation system, but also led to the complete breakdown of vital water and sanitation services (already singled out for bombing during Bush’s war). Diseases not seen in Iraq for many years, such as cholera, are reaching epidemic proportions. Hospitals are desperately short of supplies: if two operations are scheduled on one day, and there is only enough anesthetic for one, then the other must go without. This is what it means to revert to barbarism.

In response to growing international outrage, especially in the Arab world, the UN high command, against U.S. complaints, grudgingly allowed Iraq to sell some oil on the international market in order to buy emergency supplies. The so-called food basket – 25 cents per day per person – does not include animal protein, vitamins or minerals: no meat, fish, poultry, fruits, or vegetables may be imported.

This exterminationist policy is the logical consequence of a mindset that equates the people of a nation with its government, and therefore punishes the former for the crimes (both real and imagined) of the latter. In the calculus of power, individuals do not count: there are no Iraqis, only the nation of Iraq. The fundamental indifference to justice of the collectivist mentality is underscored by a policy that refuses to distinguish between Saddam and his victims.

The growing meanness of everyday life, and the gradual descent of Iraqi society into a Hobbesian war of all against all, benefits no one but Saddam. He can point to the U.S. and the West as the source of Iraq’s growing misery, and hold himself up as the heroic champion of Iraqi independence – and who – among the emaciated and war-weary Iraqi populace, will have the strength, either physical or psychological, to contradict him?

Saddam Hussein is not the only strongman who benefits from the imposition of economic sanctions: Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Cuba’s Fidel Castro are also depicted in their official propaganda organs as intransigent foes of Western hegemonism.

The Cuban people have suffered an economic embargo imposed by the United States, and the results, if less dramatic than in Iraq, have had the same political effect. Economic sanctions confer on Saddam, Fidel, and “Slobo” Milosevic a legitimacy that might otherwise be cast into doubt: as the people starve, they are amenable to the proposition that the main enemy is not at home, but in Washington, D.C.

In a strange way, the policy of economic sanctions underscores the absurdity of autarky, the economic doctrine that insists on the superiority of products made in the home country. The policy of these autarkists is protectionism: its advocates seek to “protect” native industries from “unfair” foreign competition, and invoke the alleged existence of a so-called “balance of trade,” which is put out of whack every time someone buys an imported good.

The autarkist doctrine, that a nation must be “self-sufficient” lest it submit to the “economic coercion” of other nations – who will then blackmail it into submission – is being put into full and consistent operation in Iraq. Although its people are starving, Iraq’s “balance of trade” is in balance, and evil foreign competition has been brought under control. After all, Iraq’s “native” industries are free to flourish, minus all that cutthroat competition from abroad. In Iraq, under economic sanctions, we can see the end result of the protectionist “ideal”: starvation.

The propaganda leading up to the first Gulf War was centered around the alleged strategic and economic necessity of access to cheap and plentiful oil. But the embargo against Iraq, which prevents that country from selling its ample oil supplies on the international market, drives oil prices higher than they would otherwise be. Now the ideal of free trade with all nations – an ideal celebrated by the framers – seems further off than ever, and every month or two, the policy elites who otherwise swear fealty to free trade, discover another worthy candidate to target with this cruel policy.

Determining whether higher oil prices are a deliberate result of U.S. government policy, or merely an accident, is a job for a journalist or an economic historian with an inside knowledge. We can, however, ask a key question: qui bono? Who benefits? Only governments and their connected interest groups. To avoid such open conspiracies was the purpose of the framers’ vision of commercial relations with the entire world, but policy entanglements with none.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].