Coherent Argument, Meet Matt Welch

Matt Welch is vexed. According to him, U.S. involvement in Iraq has unleashed a storm of lies. No, not about uranium from Niger, or 45 minute launch times, or vast stores of anthrax, not those little fibs. Welch is referring to "lies" that exaggerate the impact of sanctions on Iraqis, especially children. These "myths" are dangerous, you see, because they challenge the rectitude of American foreign policy, and we all know what that leads to – moral equivalence. Take a moment to shudder.

Let’s consider two notable Welch articles on sanctions, one in last week’s Beirut Daily Star and the other from Reason, March 2002. Both are Trojan horses. Though they purport to question the usefulness of sanctions in general, Welch puts most of his effort into smearing critics of sanctions/war and absolving the U.S./U.N. of primary blame for Iraq’s twelve-year humanitarian disaster. First, he claims to debunk the frequently heard statistics about the size of the calamity. Second, he argues that his more reasonable body count should be laid at Saddam Hussein’s feet.

Although many disagree with Welch, I prefer to use his own words against him. The two Welch essays analyzed below implode on close inspection. Sit back and watch the debunker debunk himself. (Please forgive any redundant links – they’re meant to permit quick reference to context.)


Regardless of blame, how many "excess deaths" were there among children below the age of five in interwar Iraq? ("Excess deaths" are defined as those exceeding pre-sanctions mortality rates.) Welch scores his only two valid points here: We cannot be certain how many died, and we should be wary of advocates who pad their causes with big numbers. Fine. But while we don’t know exactly how many "excess deaths" there were, it is possible to make informed estimates. That some people have thrown out unsubstantiated figures does not invalidate the anti-sanctions case, or even the specific numbers touted by the misinformed. Ask 1,000 American high school students how many people live in France, and one ignoramus is bound to guess 60 million; even a blind chicken finds a kernel of corn every now and then.

So what do the informed estimates say? Welch cites the original UNICEF report for the years 1991-1998 as one source for the 500,000 figure. In his Sep. 3 article, Welch argues that because UNICEF presupposes the same rate of decline in mortality rates that Iraq saw in the 1980s, a more accurate estimate should be pegged to constant 1989 levels, leaving the number "closer to 400,000." (Welch specified 420,000 in March 2002, but why worry over 20,000 or so dead kids?) He then invokes a 1999 study by Richard Garfield, a nursing professor at Columbia University, which sets the 1991-1998 death toll between 106,000 and 227,000. This debunks the myth of a half million, right? Not exactly. Garfield’s updated estimate for the entire 1990-2002 period is actually 350,000 to 530,000. In other words, the authority Welch uses to contradict UNICEF and other purveyors of what he calls "the Iraqi babies scam" says that total deaths could be 6% higher than the "scammers" proclaim!

Welch’s statistical problems don’t end there. Two points must be considered when assessing the sanctions’ impact: far different mortality rates in the north and south, and the effects of the "oil for food" program. Northern Iraq, where the embargo was hardly enforced, suffered much less than areas below. Welch 2002:

"The New Republic claims the autonomous Kurdish area ‘is subject to exactly the same sanctions as the rest of the country.’ This is false: Under the oil-for-food regime, the north, which contains 13 percent of the Iraqi population, receives 13 percent of all oil proceeds, a portion of that in cash. Saddam’s regions, with 87 percent of the population, receive 59 percent of the money (recently increased by the U.N. Security Council from 53 percent), none of it in cash. (Of the rest, 25 percent goes to a Kuwaiti compensation fund, and the rest covers U.N. expenses.)

"It just isn’t true that the sanctions are ‘exactly the same’ in both parts of Iraq."

All well and good. But in his recent reprise, he banishes the crux of the factoid to parentheses:

"UNICEF found that under-five mortality actually decreased in the autonomous north, while doubling in Saddam-controlled regions, giving pro-sanctions (and pro-war) advocates evidence that the Iraqi dictator was largely to blame. (It is also true that the north received far more international aid.)"

How clever. Welch compares apples and oranges and only notes the difference as an afterthought.

On "oil for food," he’s even more manipulative. 2002:

"Sanctions critics almost always leave out one other salient fact: The vast majority of the horror stats they quote apply to the period before March 1997, when the oil-for-food program delivered its first boatload of supplies (nearly six years after the U.N. first proposed the idea to a reluctant Iraqi government). . . .

"Anyone who tells you more children will perish in Iraq this month than Americans died on September 11 is cutting and pasting inflated mid-1990s statistics onto a country that has changed significantly since then." [Emphasis mine.]

Welch was obviously aware of Garfield’s updated mortality estimate when he wrote this, because he makes reference to it elsewhere in the article. But look at how he exploits the same statistics now:

"This [Garfield’s update] would mean that the rate actually accelerated during the "oil-for-food" program, which brought a whopping $28 billion worth of humanitarian supplies into Iraq between March 1997 and March 2003." [Emphasis mine.]

This contradicts what he wrote earlier, but then Welch twists numbers to prove whatever needs proving at the time. In March 2002 the spotlight was on disarming Saddam, so it was important to emphasize his intransigence. Now that Iraq’s liberation is the last casus belli standing, Saddam’s oppression of "his" people must take center stage. See, if more children died after food and medicine imports increased, it must have been because Saddam was "milk[ing] the humanitarian tragedy for all it was worth."

So much for math with Matt Welch.


One could argue that Welch cares less about numbers (except when they make peaceniks look foolish) than he does about culpability. So anywhere between 350,000 and 530,000 Iraqi youngsters met an unnecessary end. Who’s to blame?

Credit Welch for one correction: UNICEF never placed full blame directly on the sanctions. UNICEF is, of course, a subsidiary of the institution that levied the sanctions, but we won’t infer any "conflict of interest." We’ll just accept their take as one group’s opinion and try to clear our own path through a thicket of alternative culprits.

Welch’s 2002 article lists several of these, including "sanctions, drought, hospital policy, breast-feeding education, Saddam Hussein’s government, depressed oil prices, the Iraqi economy’s almost total dependence on oil exports and food imports, destruction from the Iran-Iraq and Persian Gulf wars, [and] differences in conditions between the autonomous north and the Saddam-controlled south." Let’s take them one at a time.

Differences in conditions between the autonomous north and the Saddam-controlled south. This makes no sense as a cause of mortality – the lack of an embargo in the north didn’t cause shortages in the south – so it can be dismissed immediately.

Drought. If the author didn’t just yank this theory out of the clouds, he should have provided evidence for it. Besides, drought simply does not cause mass death (Welch can reread his hero P.J. O’Rourke’s All the Trouble in the World, chapter 3, for background if he doesn’t believe me).

Hospital policy. Welch cites the world’s worst source of intelligence on Iraq:

"The US Defense Department claimed in July that the Baath regime spent a microscopic $13 million on healthcare for the Iraqi people in 2002. ‘That’s less than $1 per person per year,’ Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. William Winkenwerder told reporters on July 25: ‘Yet, Saddam and his sons continued to spend the money of Iraq and its resources in their palaces, and in their security apparatus and in their effort to pursue weapons of mass destruction [obligatory snicker]. It is almost unbelievable. One has to be there to believe it and to see it.’"

Yes, the Husseins lived large while their subjects suffered, as I pointed out in a call to global anarchism several weeks ago, but what does healthcare spending matter when medicine is in short supply?

Breast-feeding education. I love the casual insertion of this excuse; why not blame everything on Iraqi sex ed while you’re at it? Yes, the substitution of powder formula for breast milk has been a major factor in infant deaths, but why? To begin with, Iraq’s infrastructure has been destroyed bomb by bomb for over a decade. Au revoir, sanitation. When mixed with septic water, formula wreaks havoc on immature immune systems. But mothers who were malnourished themselves or forced to work by siege conditions had little choice but to use the formula included in their rations.

Depressed oil prices. Yeah, we’ve all seen those pitiful tots in Kuwait.

The Iraqi economy’s almost total dependence on oil exports and food imports. A preexisting factor.

Destruction from the Iran-Iraq and Persian Gulf wars. The war with Iran was in the 1980s, the era against which the excess deaths since have been measured.

After all this tiresome prestidigitation, we’re left with sanctions and Saddam. Saddam deserves blame, yes, a thousand times yes. He should have surrendered to his former patrons in D.C. as soon as they turned their guns on him. He’s a horrible, horrible beast, the wretched spawn of a Hitler-Stalin orgy, or, in Virginia Postrel’s lexicon, a demon straight out of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Jesus himself would have driven a stake through the bastard’s heart as Buddha poured the lighter fluid and Gandhi struck a match. We get it already.

Minus war and sanctions, however, those 350,000 to 530,000 children would still be alive, even with the evil Saddam in charge. And given the nonexistence of the threat Welch and his buddies hyped six months ago, can they not admit that those lives were wasted?

Don’t count on it. Welch’s biggest gripe about Madeleine Albright’s response to hundreds of thousands of innocents slaughtered (“I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it”) is that she didn’t deny the half million figure, a figure he’s willing to set at 420,000. In terms of sheer callousness, Albright and Welch are neck and neck.

But, since the vast majority of us who gave a damn about the war either way have moved on, why is Welch still stuck on sanctions? I’ll let him explain.

"If sanctions are killing Iraqi babies, then Osama Bin Laden has a legitimate propaganda tool, and the U.S. has blood on its hands that demands immediate attention. So let’s find the facts, weigh them against Saddam’s weapons capabilities, and proceed from there." (02)

Welch has a keen eye for propaganda, as someone who hawks so much of it should. (Tell us more about those weapons capabilities. . .) Is he afraid that angry Muslims – or even worse, American peaceniks – might have a point about U.S. foreign policy? About, dare I say it, blowback? Well, they can’t, they simply can’t! Why, only Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan question the almighty government, and they’re. . . they’re. . . they’re looooooooony.

If these are the best arguments the liberventionists can muster, then I think I’ll stick with the loons.